The internationally renowned artist was just 19 when he took his trusty Nikon to the festival. Only one was ever published — till now.

By Jessie Wender

Aug. 6, 2019

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.

Read the full interview here: New York Times