2017 Winners - Balarama Heller
The purpose of the Aperture Portfolio Prize is to identify trends in contemporary photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition. When choosing the first-prize winner and runners-up, Aperture’s editorial and curatorial staff look for innovative bodies of work that haven’t been widely seen in major publications or exhibition venues.
For more information about the Aperture Portfolio Prize, please visit aperture.org/portfolio-prize.
When viewing images from Balarama Heller’s series Zero at the Bone, I feel transported and yet transfixed—the tight sequence of this ongoing project gives me no way in, or any way out. It’s as if I were dropped into a dreamscape, my legs stuck in swamp mud, and I am surrounded by the glowing eyes of nocturnal beasts.
Serpents are continual in this body of work, but the theme goes deeper than the pictures. In researching the origins of the photographer’s first name, I found that Balarama is the elder brother of the Hindu deity Krishna. It is said that Balarama, in a meditative state, was seen with a snake crawling out of his mouth as he left this world.
Could this very snake be the one depicted in Heller’s photograph of the constellation Serpens in ascension? Beyond the mythical connections, there is an ecological one as well. Pythons are becoming rampant across the Florida Everglades due to pet owners releasing them into the wild after the snakes grow too large to care for. With no natural predator in the region, they have become an invasive species, and there have been stories of pythons eating house pets.
Heller’s photographs don’t feel observational, nor do they feel expository. What he creates is experiential, as if the viewer is given secret passage to an unknown world. What he creates is not someplace incredibly mysterious—after all, it is Florida—but that’s the beauty of photography. We are transcended to a different state of mind and to what feels like a different place entirely. And in Balarama Heller’s case, there is no sunlight in his Sunshine State.
About Balarama Heller:
Balarama Heller (b. 1979, New York City) received his BFA from the Art Institute of Boston. He has been a member of the U.S. Merchant Marines, crewing ocean-going tugboats. Heller lived in Istanbul, where he photographed long-form projects concerning ritual and transcendence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, before moving to New York City in 2010. His recent group shows include the Foundry Art Centre, St. Charles, Missouri, and the 2015 Aperture Summer Open, New York. In 2014, Heller published his first book, Into and Through. His photographic practice examines how the natural world can function as entry point into hypnogogic states.