Friday, June 17, 2011

Roger Ballen's Dorps: book review

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in Roger Ballen’s photography. Mementoes from the past, such as threadbare teddy bears, aged family photographs and other disused items from bygone eras have become common motifs in his inimitable brand of photography, which evokes a haunting liminal territory suspended not only between fact and fiction but in time too. His fascination for items that have been degraded by time is linked to his desire to retrieve a lost sense of innocence that one senses has always been sullied or corrupt.

In Dorps: Small Towns in South Africa, which was first published in 1986, one is able to trace the beginnings of Ballen’s fixation with the abandoned, the obsolete. It is an interest which manifests in a photographic study of small towns, dorps, where dilapidated Victorian buildings, empty streets and wall displays of dated imagery conjure up a lost culture. The black and white photographs of these overlooked and unpopulated rural towns, mostly taken in the mid-1980s, have an almost post-apocalyptic quality in the sense that they are caught in what appears to be a spiral of degeneration. Windows are cracked or broken, paint has chipped off the exteriors, signs are faded and corrugated iron roofs have rusted and buckled. The numerous vacant streets and abandoned buildings that feature in this photographic essay hint at a defunct society that has been exterminated. Of course, this offers a politicised reading, which posits these ghost towns as metaphors for a conservative white community that is on the decline.

But this is an oversimplified purview, particularly if one considers this early body of work in relation to his more recent oeuvres, which suggest that Ballen’s interest in entropy is part of an aesthetic designed to challenge the temporal character of photography.Ballen has always tried to undermine the properties of photography. Consequently, while the photographs in this glossy book appear to be the documentation of a society or culture in South Africa circa the mid-1980s, they in fact are quite detached from that era. The architecture, inhabitants’ dress and shop displays hark from a variety of epochs. In this way Ballen presents us with a world in which time has collapsed. Much of the architecture evokes a pseudo-European culture. This connection and the other stylistic throwbacks are motivated by an aspiration which Ballen describes as a “yearning for magnificence”.