chapter
102 Pages

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Roger Ballen grew up with an awareness of photography as an art form. His mother, Adrienne Ballen, worked at Magnum Photos from 1963 to 1967, when she founded Photography House, a gallery that showed the work of Andre´ Kerte´sz. In Ballen’s first book of photography, Boyhood

(1977), he describes how his mother’s untimely death set himoff ona four-year odyssey in searchofhis own boyhood, a recuperative journey that broadened into one of rediscovering himself. Boyhood searches for what is universal in boys: the Tom Sawyerish fantasies and bonding in their play, the stock characters among their peers, the ‘‘clown, Romeo, bully, sore sport, hothead, leader, weakling, braggart, tattletale, mope, do-nothing, nice guy, thickhead.’’Boys in temples, in rags, in motion, in mourning, all are photographed in spontaneous action or posed, often in a way Ballen favors for extracting an essence: compressed between the camera and a wall. Boyhood took Ballen to South Africa, where he

settled in 1982 and married the painter Linda Moross. Armed with a Ph.D. in Mineral Economics, he established a successful career in mining, which took him to remote and depressed parts of the country. Here he photographed the fabric of small towns, or dorps-the churches, main streets, stores, signs, and

the grain of dilapidating Edwardian columns, railings, and roof ornaments, which suggested to him ‘‘a nostalgia for a distant unattainable splendor.’’ In his resulting book, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986), he relates a desire to freeze time, preserving these environments against modernization, much as

Boyhood had sought to still the innocent timelessness of childhood. But it is the inhabitants and their habitations, particularly the interiors filled with personal mementos, ornaments, and pinups, that loom

larger than the towns in Dorps. Ballen likens his subjects to the hillfolk of Appalachia, frozen in an earlier era. Their poverty is evident, and the viewer suspects inbreeding in the cramped interiors, scandals in the dirty sheets between the peeling walls. Furthermore, beneath these surfaces lie the ingrained realities of apartheid. These are strictly segregated towns, conservative and racist, parison with

American photographers of the rural South during

the depression of 1930s, particularly Walker Evans,

Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange.