I am Roger Ballen and this is why I shoot film
Week 3 has flown in, which means another interview and another
unwilling victim ecstatic guest to grill.
I’m very, very pleased to have been able to grab some time with the venerable Roger Ballen; multifaceted photographer, painter and sculptor.
Today we’ll be exploring Roger’s motivation, drives and work, so let’s get cracking.
Over to you, Roger.
Hi Roger, what’s this picture, then?
RB: This image, “Mimicry” is one of my favourite images as it was one of my first that successfully integrated drawing, painting and sculpture through photography. The image is humorous and enigmatic; precise and formally perfect; multi-layered and complex in meaning.
I commonly point out that this iconic photograph is a good example of how other media can be transformed through photography.
Ok, so who are you?
RB: The short version: I was Born in New York 1950, studied psychology as an undergrad student and then went on to complete a PhD in Mineral Economics.
I originally came to South Africa to work as a geologist but as my love and enthusiasm for photography began to grow, I found motivations to stay a while. That was about 30 years ago.
People familiar with my very early work say that it was rather socio-politically oriented, some say it had elements of the photo journalist.
Whilst I’ll say that it encompassed elements of all that, I believe that it was coming to and shooting my small part of South Africa, which allowed me develop a more empathetic style.
I believe that photography can do more than document simple reality; becoming part of the community I was shooting helped me to explore the inner world of my subjects beyond the stark physical nature of their environment.
When did you start shooting film?
RB: In the 1960’s my mother worked for Magnum Photos and helped set up one of the first photographic galleries in the US, so you could say that photography was an early passion influenced by her. I really started shooting film in 1968 when I received a Nikkormat FTN for my birthday. I can’t say how much I shot but I can tell you that it was mostly Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
RB: For me there’s a mystery attached to the medium. You don’t know what you’re really going to get until you develop your film, make your adjustments and then finally blow it up and see a print.
The entire process fascinates me. Loading film, considering, composing and then capturing the image, developing the negative, tweaking it and printing it.
It really is impossible to replicate using a digital medium, where you can just keep taking photos until you get it right. Shooting film really is intensely physical in all aspects.
I believe that it’s important to note that I grew up in a time where film cameras were everywhere. The last generation that had it so, if you will. So, taking photos and specifically taking them using film as the method of capture is something that I have a very deep, ingrained connection with.
Oh, and I also shoot square…it’s part of my aesthetic and there aren’t any medium format, square format digital cameras out there… I’ve checked… Exhaustively!
Any favorite subject matter?
RB: I don’t walk the streets to point and shoot. For me, my photographs need to tell a story that requires more than just words to describe. So sure, sure, I have ideas and concepts in my head that I’d like to explore but I don’t just walk the streets trying to find a shot to match them.
I go to the same places I’ve always gone to and I shoot the things I feel help me convey the meaning I’m after. You might say that I enter with an empty mind and leave with an empty mind.
One important thing to note is that like everything to be sharp and in focus, I don’t like blur. I shoot with flash, or strobes, so I’m afforded the ability to capture everything I want at very small apertures, f11, or f16.
I also feel that my sculpture, drawing and painting have helped to evolve my work and I think you can see a transition in my work, as I have begun to integrate other art forms into my pictures. If you compare my early work to that of today, I feel that my photographs are more multilayered than before. There’s a deeper context and story.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
RB: I mostly shoot Kodak TMAX 400. It’s sharp, it’s consistent and I connect with how it represents the imagery I try to capture. As I said, I aim to get everything in focus, so shooting a fine grain film is essential to my work.
If I only had one roll left to shoot, it would be TMAX 400 and I’d go shoot it exactly where I’ve been shooting for the past 30 years. I’d finish that roll knowing that I’d have captured everything I wanted to capture in exactly the way I’d wanted to capture it!
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What to you take with you and why?
RB: That depends but as I don’t know what I’ll be shooting, I’d have to say my Rolleiflex SL66 with the stock 80mm lens, or the 90mm macro. They’re both great lenses and capture stunning images. The 90mm especially, can go from being a ‘normal’ lens to a macro in a flick and the SL66’s bellows mean I don’t need to take extra macro gear.
Film-wise, I’d take a roll of TMAX 400 and a roll of my backup: Ilford Delta 400 Professional.
I’d also probably cheap a little and take my Leica M Monocrom. Yes, it’s digital but it’s a great camera; fast, compact and captures great images. For me, it’s another reason that confirms there’s not really much difference between film and digital as it relates to sharpness, or detail.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
RB: No question about it. Same film, same places.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
RB: Photography is an easy art to master technically but technical mastery of a camera doesn’t mean you’ve mastered photography. Almost anyone can learn to meter a shot and then capture an image but it takes years of effort and dedication to become a really good photographer.
It’s not something that is easily come by!
The explosion in digital photography and the ease at which everyone is able to take photos means that the vast majority of people seem to think that anyone can become a photographer. This is simply not true.
Taking photographs has become commoditized, and many professions which used to thrive on the knowledge, experience and quality of the photographer have been torn apart. I consider myself lucky to not have to rely on shooting weddings, events and such in order to make a living today.
Finally, in your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
RB: We can’t stop the digital march, or even slow it down. That’s just progress.
I believe that film photography will continue as a form, much in the same way that painted portraits still exist. It’s my belief that using film as a photographic medium will simply become more and more antiquated, peripheral, specialised.
That’s not a negative viewpoint. Just to say that should the medium follow the route I’ve described, it will become more valuable than what’s replaced it and give future photographers a niche they can use to express their thoughts and ideas.
And there we have it. I’ve been following Roger’s work for some time now and whilst some of his pieces have made me feel genuinely uncomfortable in the past, I’ve learned to appreciate them at less of a surface level and look at the humour in the dark. It’s nearly always there and I think the headline image on this page is a great example of it.
I’d like to encourage you all to take in Roger’s website, http://www.rogerballen.com, where you can find more details of Dorps, Boyhood, Asylum of the Birds and everything else in between.
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