The PhotoBook Journal

October 25, 2014

Roger Ballen – Asylum Of The Birds

Filed under: Book Publications, Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Doug Stockdale @ 10:04 pm


Copyright Roger Ballen 2014 published by Thames & Hudson

This photobook is another introspective project from Roger Ballen, the American (b. 1950 New York) photographer who relocated from New York City to Johannesburg South Africa in the 1970’s. This is the fourth photobook continuing the evolution of the investigation of an unknown place in South Africa;  Boarding House (2009), Shadow Chamber (2005), and Outland (2001).

Similar to his three previous photobooks, Ballen uses intricate and darkly designed sets that are constructed narratives. As he continues his investigation, there appears to be less emphasis on the inclusion of individuals within the frame. As a result, the photographs read more as still lives than the documentary interaction of his subjects as an aspect of theater. The sets include more of sculptural objects. The lines, marks and shapes have grittiness to them, that anticipating that these sets will be photographed in black & white, were probably created with graphite and chalk. The abstract animals and living organisms that inhabit the walls and furniture have a similar appearance to those creatures who inhabit the Lyrical Expression paintings of Arshile Gorky, who Andre Breton call a Surrealist, another aspect of which Ballen’s compositions. Ballen’s use of line is almost delicate in comparison to the heaviness of the Franz Kline, an Abstract Expressionist.

Ballen has stated that “Black and White is essentially an abstract way to interpret and transform what one might refer to as reality. My purpose in taking photographs over the past forty years has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been fundamentally a psychological and existential journey.”

His black and white photographs continue the a similar gritty and graphic appearance that are with the background marks and shapes, lines, graphics, symbols, Less emphasis on the inclusion of individuals within the frame, their presence now inferred by the marks and graphics on the background, sculptural, works of art, animals, predominately birds, objects, depicts an unknown and ambiguous place.

His photographs are ambiguous, abstract, read as singular images and need to be considered within the context of the entire book. These are wonderful photographs to read and contemplate, emotionally charged, tension filled and on occasion, delightfully absurd and humorous. No wonder I am such a big fan of Ballen.

This is a hardcover book with an illustrated dust jacket and paginated. Each photograph is framed with a classic white margin and each has a caption. The introduction was written by Didi Bozzini.

Recommended: Interview of Ballen by Manik Katyal, Editor EMAHO magazine: here.

Previous Roger Ballen title reviewed on The PhotoBook: Boarding House










  1. I am fascinated by Ballens work. After viewing the movie, which I found compelling, I wonder is it a constructed set?

    Comment by bill purvis — October 25, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Hi Bill, from what I understand, this “place” where his photographs are made is some kind of building that has become inhabited by homeless and other individuals. As a result of the graffiti and stuff thrown on the walls etc, Roger and his conspirators then add to the graphic effects and create the “set”. Roger has been very guarded about where this place is located (and so protecting the people who inhabit it) so this is a bit of a mystery.

    Comment by Doug Stockdale — October 27, 2014 @ 3:35 am

    • The video of ‘this place’ is extraordinary I doubt if anybody has ever seen anything quite like it.

      Comment by bill purvis — October 27, 2014 @ 3:50 am

  3. Reblogged this on downeast101.

    Comment by downeast101 — November 1, 2014 @ 9:25 am

  4. […] Roger Ballen – Asylum Of The Birds […]

    Pingback by Interesting Photobooks for 2014 | The PhotoBook — December 19, 2014 @ 1:07 am

  5. […] The PhotoBook previously featured two reviews by Doug Stockdale of Roger Ballen’s Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds. […]

    Pingback by Roger Ballen – The Theatre of Apparitions | The PhotoBook — May 12, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

  6. […] Drops (1986), Platteland (1994), Outland (2001), Shadow Chambers (2005), Boarding House (2009), Asylum of the Birds (2014), and The Theatre of Apparitions (2016) to name a […]

    Pingback by Roger Ballen – Ballenesque: a retrospective | The PhotoBook Journal — January 15, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

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