The lucky few who attended Roger Ballen's talk last night at the High's Hill Auditorium aren't likely to forget the experience any time soon. More of a theatrical monologue than a lecture, Ballen delivered his hour-long performance in a style that was part Vincent Price, part William S. Burroughs and seemed designed to transport listeners inside their own "shadow chambers", that dark part of your mind where Ballen's images exist and that most of us avoid whenever possible.
It really was an astonishing experience. Ballen, whose face appeared somewhat skeletal when illuminated only by the podium's reading light, spoke in low-key manner and delivered tightly cropped statements that alternated between comments about the people and places in his work ("...then this man stopped eating and drinking...no one cared or noticed...ten days later he was dead too.") to observations on photography ("The better the visual relationships [in a photo], the less you can say about the work.") to semi-patronizing inquisitions of the audience ("...you eat meat don't you...you're a killer too..."). Ballen's (intentional?) facial tic - baring his upper teeth - added to the already menacing atmosphere of the performance.
Ballen succeeded in making the audience both uncomfortable and introspective so that his photographs resonated more personally. He seems to want viewers to look at his work not with a detached voyeuristic eye: his images are not of some far away freak show but instead are right next door, inside the dark corners of all our psyches, one place that Ballen must believe people should allow themselves to visit more often. I just might. Maybe.
There is still time to see Ballen's photographs currently on display at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery. I'm already writing my top ten of 2006 list and this show will be hard to topple from the number one spot. While everyone else seems to be making big, digitally-perfected color photographs, Ballen is creating his own electrifying chapter of modernist history.
Ballen is represented in Atlanta by Jackson Fine Art who has signed copies of his latest book "Shadow Chamber" available at the gallery.