When the American photographer Roger Ballen named his 2018 retrospective book “Ballenesque,” the title immediately conjured his distinctive aesthetic. His best-known images are unsettling portraits of people on the fringes of society, taken in interior spaces, the walls of which Ballen has covered with primitive drawings.
But long before he made his reputation in the art world, Ballen, who has made South Africa his home for nearly 40 years, found himself in a very different place, photographing a very different subject: Woodstock.
In the summer of 1969, Ballen was home in Westchester County after completing his first year studying psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He went to Woodstock not just to enjoy the music but to document his experience. Already a budding photographer — his mother worked for the storied photo agency Magnum, and for a high school graduation gift, his parents gave him a Nikon FTN — Ballen shot three rolls of film at the festival. But he only ever published one of the photographs.
Curious about what Woodstock looked like through the eyes of an aspiring 19-year-old artist, we asked Ballen to return to the negatives, which he hadn’t looked at in 50 years.
“It was a jolt to the memory,” he said. “I was so excited. It’s like finding gems in the sand. It’s one of the nicest feelings that you can have when you’re involved in the history of your own work, to find things that you ignored or forgot about or didn’t come to terms with. And the fact that 50 years have gone by, which is also hard to reconcile.”
In a phone interview from Johannesburg, Ballen talked about the stories behind some of the photos and how that experience influenced his work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you end up at Woodstock?
I joined this camp called Camp Mohawk — it was in Westchester [N.Y.]. somewhere and I became a counselor there. There was this family day, and we had the children make the peace sign and say, “peace now, peace now.” We all got fired. A week later, Woodstock happened and I went up with one of the other counselors that got fired. I borrowed my mother’s car. It was a red Chevrolet station wagon. If you put down the seat in the middle, you could sleep in the back.
Do you remember watching any shows?
Oh, yeah, Janis Joplin. I remember most of them. The sound wasn’t amazing, and there was also a lot of crowds. It was hard to get around. There were no pathways where people were supposed to walk, so everybody was huddled around. To get food or go to the toilet, you had to walk over people. That was one thing that stuck in my mind. The other was there was a funny, awful smell in the mud. I don’t know what it was from, if it was fertilizer or a sewage problem or something. I remember people were passing around pills that they were saying was acid. There were pink ones and green ones. I thought to myself, it’s stupid to take something that you have no idea what’s in these. It could be arsenic for all I know.
What was it like photographing in a time when not everybody was doing it?
A person carrying a camera like that, a Nikon — you had to know something about what you were doing. It wasn’t something you could just pick up. Also, I was using film. It was black and white, so you had to process it and you had to know something about the speed of film and lighting. If you were more amateurish, you might buy a small Kodak camera that had a flash in it or take some Polaroid pictures. I was a stranger in that environment, but people were more comfortable being photographed, maybe because they were part of an event, and maybe felt they were making some sort of historical statement.
You’ve said that so much of photography is actually rooted in having experiences and not just sitting behind a camera or computer.
Yeah, this is the truth of the matter. When I grew up in photography, it was about getting on the street, experiencing events, getting in the middle of things, coming back with the goods and the experience to talk about. So you build up a sense of place, a sense of identity. After Woodstock, I made a five-year trip. Hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town, Istanbul to New Guinea, across South America. That experience had such a profound effect on everything after I did in my life.
Did being at Woodstock shape your photography?
At age 19, 20, 21, my work had something more to do with the social-political conditions. I guess they played a role in my getting to know the human experience, human endeavor, finding the moment, working with people, searching in difficult circumstances for something that stood out. If I had to say what are important aspects that run through the work, it’s trying to come to terms with pure chaos.
Are there elements in these pictures that have carried through to your work today?
The most important aspect of what I did at Woodstock in relation to what I do now is the pictures came together in a decisive moment that I tried to capture. I don’t photograph outdoors anymore. There aren’t many people in the pictures. For the last two years, all my pictures have been in color. In the last two years, I’ve stopped using film. But that one concept, the decisive moment, is the thing I’ve built on for the past 52 years.
Tell me about the bathing picture.
Far for me to judge what everybody’s life was about in America, but it was a period where sexuality started to become more talked about. You kept hearing ‘free love,’ ‘free sex,’ ‘group sex,’ this sort of thing. The concept of being nude — being free of constraints, being liberated — that was just part of the time. This probably wouldn’t have happened five years before that.
What about the older gentlemen there?
There was really a real gap between the so-called World War II generation and this so-called hippie generation, this younger bunch of people en masse questioning the values of the country. So there was this real, I wouldn’t say animosity, but there was a lack of sympathy. I’m sure if the older people walked past those bathers, they probably were talking about it 10 years later.
Looking at the pictures of crowds, does that spark anything in the way you see what was going on?
This is part of the whole myth of Woodstock. The place fell apart physically, but people were able to be congenial and enjoy the music, enjoy the place, not get into fights and be together in a very harmonious fashion. But it is important to understand, I think, that a lot of people’s impression of what Woodstock was about came from the movie. The movie solidified the experience in its own way. But like anything, in photography or in a movie, it focuses on particular experiences, and there were other aspects that weren’t very romantic at all.
What would be an example?
It would be the pouring rain and lack of food or getting stuck in traffic, or being wet all the time, and sitting around waiting for a band to come onstage for an hour, and then the sound wasn’t right. What’s interesting is that somebody growing up in a suburban household — because most of the people there were probably from white, middle-class, more liberal backgrounds — hadn’t ever experienced that sort of physical difficulty before. I don’t think anybody would even think about getting wet or getting muddy or having to wait for food. It became a very profound experience for a lot of people.
Jessie Wender is a photo editor of Past Tense, an archival storytelling initiative based on photographs rediscovered as The Times digitizes millions of images from its archives. She was previously a photo editor at The New Yorker, National Geographic and Apple. You can follow her on Instagram @jmwender.
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