Boarding House

By ROGER BALLEN

Roland Barthes’s well-worn axiom, declaring that a photograph is not merely the sign of its subject but its “trace,” receives a strange turn in Roger Ballen’s latest series, Boarding House. The photos were taken, as Ballen claims, around a half-deserted rookery belonging to one of Johannesburg’s less-appetizing quarters — but the real setting may be somewhere inside Ballen’s head. An American living in South Africa for upward of three decades, Ballen began his career as a documentarian of the Robert Capa stamp, with several essays on life in South Africa’s hardscrabble Platteland (the title of his second book). Shadow Chamber, published in 2005, signaled a shift to more symbolic terrain: animals and people appeared alongside still lifes and sculpture in deliberately posed compositions that emanated a singular (not to say creepy) theatricality. Boarding House is in much the same idiom. As David Travis, formerly of the Art Institute of Chicago, writes in the introduction, “in the Boarding House?we confront?coat hangers, body parts, squalor and rodents.” The squalor and body parts are real; the Boarding House, perhaps somewhat less so. Ballen’s interiors, alive with Basquiat-esque graffiti, are suspiciously picturesque, and Travis hints darkly at the artist’s increasing reliance on “an element of fiction.” The mysterious contents of the Boarding House stand in for the greater mystery of which the photographs themselves are the evidence: Did Ballen, in fact, work with the denizens of the squat to make his pictures? Or are these false traces of an imagined “Boarding House”? How do we know?