Tuesday, 3 April 2012

...and what did you learn

from the Roger Ballen Masterclass?

Well...in short I found the whole experience more than a little unsettling and uncomfortable. But it wasn't a bad experience by any means...more a 'OMG, I have so much to learn and the crevasse between where I am now and being 'world-class', is like...forever away'. I can see years...decades of hard graft ahead of me...and his forecast even when, or more likely, if you do 'make it' was brutally honest. But there is sooo much I can take from this day...and hearing things from someone of his calibre means they resonate strongly. It was a good opportunity to ask those questions that have been 'bugging' me for a while too (see this post).

For me, who has never attended an event like this, I found it to be a ruthlessly levelling experience with some hard truths. It has certainly gone some way in answering my own questions in this blog post 'putting it out there'. I'm not ready, or more precisely, my work is far from being ready to 'be out there'.

The reason I felt compelled to attend this masterclass was after watching the video he produced for Die Antwoord (see this post).  Creating abstract pieces in other types of art such as sculpture or painting is common, to see this done in photography is less common and intrigues me.  This 'inside out' photography or expressing 'feelings' in imagery is something I want to be able to achieve.  Currently, I have ideas and an appreciation of the limitations of the photograph, but I don't have the where with all to make that transition from what's in my head in to a coherent image...and I want to learn...Roger Ballen seems as good a place to start as any...

Roger Ballen has been photographing for 50 years, first in the US (his Mum worked in the Magnum offices where he met some of the all time greats) and later in South Africa where he still resides. He considers himself an art photographer who has only ever done one commercial job.  He has had other businesses to support his photography and it is only in the last 5 - 8 years that it has truly become a viable business in its own right.  He describes his images as 'psychological' documentary, derived from his interest in psychology which he studied previously. His work has never neatly 'sat' within any genre and explains, to a certain extent, why his work has been misunderstood for so many years.  

On viewing his images, one would be forgiven for expecting the artist to be a troubled or 'dark' soul. But from what I have seen, it seems not. His work in the exhibition which spans over thirty years has an unnerving consistency and voice...methodical, disciplined and decisive all the way through...it is unwavering...it is all black and white, a tad sinister and gritty. They make you feel a little uncomfortable...and I like that about them.  Themes such as the 'birds', 'wires' and painted walls that were introduced in his early work such as Boarding House have been built on and run through the entire three decades of work...he says he 'delves deeper and deeper inside' and the messages become more complex...but his visual communication maintains an amazingly consistent visual language. Quite impressive given the timescale. The exhibition and the person do not suggest to me a troubled or anguished soul. He is no sycophant for sure, appears slightly dour with a caustic or dry sense of humour, but his work, albeit not mass market, reflects a highly organised, deliberate and provocative artist.

I will break my notes down into three sections:
  • advice
  • portfolio review
  • the business


1. Find a Subject
Has to be form of self-expression. What are you about - need to find yourself, what interests you. Pictures reflect your sub-conscious needs. They open a door to who you are and what your purpose is. Enthusiasm is the beginning, passion and the need to express yourself
2. Take Pictures
Start with a blank wall...start with something you're comfortable with, you don't have to be a war photographer, and just keep taking pictures, you have to practice like an athlete, you have to live and breathe it, you have to take it seriously and you have to be passionate about it. As you progress, discipline, organisation and focus become so important.  Just keep taking those pictures
3. Familiarise yourself with the history of photography
Look at the whole history of photography and art...doesn't matter where or what, just has to be work that inspires you.  Do not be blinkered to just looking at contemporary art...he is cynical about much contemporary work produced in the last ten years. Understand the field you work in. 
4. How to start process
Look for a viewpoint. A viewpoint will manifest itself as you make work. Need a way of seeing that speaks about a whole range of issues. You don't need to start with a complete verbal concept of what you're doing. You can't predict where you'll go with it...it may become deeper, more subtle, create your own world or novel aesthetics/sensibility. Find something and keep at it for years.  His projects take 5 or so years to complete. How to visualise passion.  A camera is not to do with emotion...get away from trying to express 'happiness', joy or a word. You don't need an emotional word, what you think, will be interpreted differently. Capture something more complex or subtle.
5. Do it all the time
What inspired him is long gone...it's all about work, discipline and perseverance now. You have to be obsessively critical about your own work. If you have a niggle, then act on it. Give work a bit of time before you edit. 

In his view you only have to look at an image to know its good - there is no doubt - you know...it should speak for itself. The greatest advice he can give is to be your own harshest critic, if you have any doubt, then there is something wrong.  Learn to evaluate your work, identify why it works or doesn't work. He too often sees developing photographers take on projects that are too complicated...do something simple and do it well.

So it now comes to the time to review the portfolios. I was hoping it would be later in the day. There are six of ten who have brought work...I was undecided whether to show mine. I wanted to share my current work the 'Domestic Sublime' series but all I had was proof sheets.  However, given this was a one-off opportunity I decided to 'show' it. I needed to know how it felt to have my work openly discussed and 'critiqued'.

Because of where I sat, I was first up.  Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would never, ever, again show my work that is not presented in a way that I want it to be seen. I know a bit about presentation and knew proof sheets was questionable, but for the reasons aforementioned I went ahead and lay down the caveats that it was a work in progress. Now, to exacerbate things, he stated he was not interested in the story or motivation behind the images.  His view was you could judge a picture without any of this...so there was no opportunity to defend the images. All that mattered was the image itself...in effect, the images had to speak for themselves.

So, we were gagged...as the fate of our images played out before us.  Now, he forewarned us that his feedback would be honest. I was mentally prepared and grateful for this (honestly). The imagined fears were gone...and replaced by real ones, always a step forward.

Any hope of positive feedback though soon evaporated as my pictures were systematically dissected.  It wasn't pretty. The proof sheets were a problem...too small...it didn't start well. I could throw no buoyancy aid out as my images sunk in to the abyss. In all honesty, it was an unmitigated disaster from a 'putting it out there' perspective...the only saving grace is no one knew me...I could go home, lick my wounds and learn from it...

It was a harsh lesson...but a necessary one.

It is only one person's view, but I would be a fool to ignore it. That honesty defines what is required to transform the images I'm making now in to that of 'world-class' pedigree. It is a truth...I am now in no doubt what is required...I have no illusions where I am at...and how hard I will have to work. I am a student, learning my trade...and that is it...

So general points made on a variety of the portfolios that is useful:
- he could not emphasise enough the importance of the use of white in an image and how it is the only colour that distracts or leads the eye...need to be really careful with its use
- everything in an image needs to be there for a reason...don't include anything unless it has a purpose.
- technically, he didn't like camera distortions, negative dead spaces without detail, sloping lines etc
- you can have chaos if it is coherent, metaphoric or purposeful .
- need to consider every formal visual relationship in the image...if there isn't one, why is it there.
- need to make sense of it and know the purpose of everything in the the image.
- need clear intention of the photograph
- can't just be any moment...has to be a 'special' moment
- keep it simple...keep it simple...keep it simple
- subjectivity...need to go beyond subjectivity, it needs to have a deeper meaning with a universal understanding.
- put things in the image to make them more interesting if need be
- consider tones, forms, spatial relationships
- if you were painter, would you paint it like you took the photo.
- take 2-3 ideas, no more than that
- choose a word - and define it over a 4-5 years...theatrical approach.
- there is no reality or truth...it is all altered reality

Not too much on this...it was the end of the day...it is at the end of a long blog post...and it's a long way off if I ever get there at which time it will have changed anyway.  But a few things to consider:
- less than 1% do well as art photographers which makes the failure rate over 99%
- you will need another income
- it is an over-saturated business
- very hard to predict who will succeed and how the market works

So to conclude, these are his views, they will not necessarily be the same as any other fine art photographer. At the moment it feels like a pivotal point in my learning...whether it makes me feel good or bad about myself is largely irrelevant, I know I needed to hear everything I heard...how I respond is now up to me.

post edit: edited version of this article is included here on the weareoca blog.


  1. Sounds like a sublime experience Penny; so much to take away and digest. The personal experience of a one to one that just can't be replicated at distance, I envy you the experience. This post will provide a lot of people some very valuable advice and I shall come back to it often I am sure. His advice on the history of photography chimes with something I read yesterday regarding Francesca Woodman who had a very deep understanding of it.
    Labelled under "Cafe Creative Crumbs"; seems a bit more substantial than that! Thanks for sharing this and hope the wounds are just scratches.

  2. Penny

    A fabulous post! Really informative and useful for me to read—thank you for taking the time to post it. It sounds like it was a wonderful, if slightly uncomfortable learning experience for you and you have much to take away from it.

  3. I'm always telling students all these things but either they don't understand, don't listen, or disregard them.

    As regards his style of critique, it's good that you got a taste, it's what we were subjected to in the 70s but he's not a tutor with a responsibility to help students achieve their best outcomes. If all the students were subjected to it for every assignment there would soon be few students left.

    As germination benefits from a greenhouse students need some protection from the full force of the world out there in the early stages and the whole degree is an early stage; the completion of the degree is just the beginning.

    We're not here trying to produce a new generation of photographic YBAs. We're helping people to enrich their lives through a guided engagement with a creative medium of communication.

  4. Sublime...didn't feel it...sobering more like!!!

    Glad the notes will be useful to you both.

    I suspect as it was called a 'masterclass' there was a certain assumption implicit in the title and expectation of us too...but I like your analogy with the greenhouse and can appreciate the value in that and would not want to be subjected to such honesty too often!!

    When studying 3 years for a degree it could be considered an early stage, but when studying part-time this early stage can last 10 years by which time germination could have taken place and then the seed over-cooked. So whether the odd blast from the world out there is useful to gauge progress or not I'm not sure.

    It was a reality check...'character building' I think they call it.

    Thanks for the support.

  5. It sounds uncomfortable, if not bruising. I'm sure there would be other people who would crumble under the scrutiny but you seem to have taken it into yourself in a way in which you can be objective. I hope I'm right Penny and look forward reading more of your response as the Workshop percolates.

  6. Yes, I can laugh about it...just turned 40, now that is something to really worry about, ha ha!! And there is a post being written now as to how I will learn from this. Thanks Catherine.

  7. Hi Penny - just popped by to read your review ... as I was reading I kept thinking that's just what CliveW says, so obviously I must have been listening! Perhaps its sinking in slowly and will germinate in the greenhouse of OCA moist and fertile soil ;-)

    Don't take the criticism to heart, I've been subjected to it at previous places too. I quite miss it myself .. feel a bit lost up a creek without a paddle if no-one is insulting my work on a regular basis. I think there's a need to see people exercising their judgement sometimes so that we can learn what judgement is. I guess many people would be thrown by that kind of onslaught, but looking at your work and blog I know you'll be just fine!

  8. Hi Anne. Yes, there were certainly more than a few echoes of Clive's and other tutors wise words for sure, which is reassuring that we're in capable hands...I guess if we hear the advice enough times it'll eventually sink in. Criticism I know is healthy in development. The receiving the crit wasn't so bad...it was more the repercussions and thought processes thereafter like how to respond to it in a positive way and not feeling its back to square one.

    Thanks for popping by and I hope you get chance to visit the exhibition, its well worth it.

  9. Penny that's a good point about it taking 10 years, that does make for a different experience. Hurry along to Level 3 everybody, I'm already envisioning the work you're going to be making for it. ' }

    If everybody keeps the right spirit and doesn't angst too much then you'll all be fine. You aren't supposed to be the finished articles, there's a whole lot more to learn yet. The problems arise when students don't think they've got anything left to learn and think they're ready to be tutors! Hahaahaha ' }

  10. Yes bring it on...looking forward to the freedom of level three. Oh I'm sure we'll angst and worry, and no doubt you'll have to pick us up, dust us down a few more times yet. Just have to hope we're the finished article at least within this lifetime...not too much to ask is it!!!

  11. I love your ambition and determination Penny, and have no doubt that you will make work you are proud of soon. I am glad to see that you are responding so positively to this experience and look forward to the next instalment.

  12. This is really useful info. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Thanks for such an honest sharing of what sounds like a cross between a driving test and a public execution!! Lots of really valuable pointers in there and you've made a great job of documenting them. It is only one person's opinion of course - did he do the same to other portfolios? I get the feeling you would do this again if you got the chance though ...?!

  14. Strangely Dave, I would do it again...I have this strange idea that when I feel uncomfortable it must be doing me some good!! And yes, all but one of the portfolios were given plenty of pointers for improvement. And the only one that came off lightly was indeed a superb series of images. Thanks for commenting Dave.

    Thanks Eileen and Anna too.

  15. Excellent review Penny. Well done and keep on shooting...

  16. I put a link to this elsewhere, but I thought you be interested http://humanfilesjournal.com/2012/07/09/conversation-roger-ballen/