For those familiar with Roger Ballen’s portraiture, his new monograph, published this month by Thames & Hudson, may come as something of a surprise. The US born photographer, who has been based in South Africa since the 1970s, has gained fame and acclaim primarily for his black-and-white portraits of those on the fringes of society.
His new book, The Theatre of Apparitions, is something of a departure from his usual style, however. A mix of drawing and photography, the images are created by Ballen spraying paint onto glass before drawing on the paint to let light through, and then photographing the results. “The first of these kinds of images was taken in an abandoned women’s prison during the shooting of my film Memento Mori in 2004,” Ballen explains in the book’s introduction. “A former prisoner had painted over the windowpanes of one of her cells and had then drawn figures into the black paint, leaving herself completely isolated with only the barren cement walls and dim light to comfort her. Shortly after this discovery, I began to recreate images similar to those in the prison using glass windows.”
Ballen and his assistant Marguerite Rossouw created the images quickly, reusing the same glass over and over, meaning that the photographs are the only versions of the drawings that survive. The images present humans, animals, fish and birds in simple, primal formations, reminiscent of cave paintings. The world they present, as Ballen puts it, is “old”. “They operate as a kind of mythological ‘memory fossil’,” he writes. “They hark back to ancient shamanistic visions and sacred symbols that we have inherited and embedded within ourselves through the process of evolution.”