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By Zippora Elders
Roe Ethridge (born 1969, US) is an internationally acclaimed name in the worlds of fashion and advertising photography. His autonomous work also has a wide following amongst fellow photographers, galleries, collectors and editorial teams, although the general public are less familiar with this individual photography. However, both realms of his work are inextricably linked – as we see in his latest book and series of photographs, Shelter Island. The book traces an intimate story that is captured in a way reminiscent of commercial photography, while the photographer simultaneously nods towards classical genres in the discipline, such as the portrait, landscape and still life. The series also strikingly complements Ethridge’s oeuvre, a body of work that consistently reconsiders his themes –American materialism, life in the suburbs, the tension between artificial and natural– and stretches them into an endless, repetitive narrative.
Ethridge captured the series on the easternmost part of Long Island, New York, where he photographed his family in and around the typically American kit house that they rented during a summer stay. He was intrigued by the belongings left behind in the house by the original owners and their children. The photographer captures his surroundings with a keen eye for detail, combining the glossy effect of commercial photography with the personal aspect of his own work. This results in a series that comes across simultaneously as familiar and uncanny, and feels both nostalgic and contemporary.
The photographed objects tell a story of a childhood alive with carefree summers, spent completely according to North American tradition. We see piles of Coca-Cola bottles, a boy playing with a baseball bat, a colourful kite and a beautiful seashell that was found on the beach. Shelter Island is not an idealization of these symbols, rather a melancholic reflection on the approaching end of summer. Although the sun still shines brightly in the photographs, the bouquet of flowers is severely wilting, the bottles are gathering dust and the kite lies listlessly in the water. A grid of iPhone screenshots made by Ethridge’s daughter explores the margins of the narrative. In Ethridge’s distinctive technique, the subject of the passing of time –and of youth– is both stylized and personalized.
SACRIFICE YOUR BODY
The photography book Sacrifice Your Body was published in 2014. Featuring completely different work but the same personal approach, it saw Ethridge explore his relationship with his mother. Three years earlier, in 2011, he had travelled to Florida to photograph her hometown. Looking back at the photographs years later, he saw similarities with motives that he had used in his commercial work in the meantime: the suburban mom, images of lengthy telephone calls, references to sport. ‘Sacrifice your body!’ is what he heard mothers scream from the sidelines when he played American Football at high school.
Ethridge is also constantly deconstructing his own oeuvre, his ‘body’ of work –sacrificing it, as it were– in order to assemble it differently. He communicates his fascinations by approaching them from all possible perspectives, always keeping the classical genres of photography (and of the visual arts) in mind. This does not produce a conventional photo-documentary narrative; he rather unites various elements and motifs in an overtly personal combination. There is a lot going on in Shelter Island: the portraits with his son, the characteristic image of bottles in a crate, the washed-up kite, and the photograph of Pamela Anderson, lowering a bunch of grapes towards her sultry lips as a modern-day bacchante. Ethridge’s ceaseless and multifarious perception is clearly present, but the ultimate selection is meticulous and well-considered, following the rhythm of the subject. The series is a balanced portrait of his family on holiday, compiled by a clearly accomplished editor.
In the 1990s, when Ethridge studied Photography at The Atlanta College of Art, the diary-style, emotional portraits of Nan Goldin were quite influential. But Ethridge was more drawn to objective photography, an approach that was re-explored in Germany at the time: the monumental architectural photographs of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff’s passport-like portraits, the resolute family portraits of Thomas Struth. While Ethridge’s photographs are not necessarily ‘objective’, the influence is still evident in his work. His photographs are often characterized by a sense of completeness or smoothness, as if he is able to approach his subjects –however personal– from a certain distance.
Interestingly enough, it is the photographs taken by accident that please him the most. These are often photographs taken during commercial shoots that failed to make the selection, but which he also did not want to consign to the archives. Because they are commissioned, in the context of the visual arts, they somehow remind of stock photography. The subjects become motifs, types. Ethridge’s work often displays this duality: on the one hand, it is created with a determined objective in mind, while on the other, it appeals to universal motifs and narratives. It is about people and life, and that makes it both intimate and general.
Returning to subjects and an endless analysis of (own) photographs (of the subjects) is something that we are familiar with from German photographic history too – for example, Karl Blossfeldt’s plants, August Sander’s portraits and the architectonic structures of Bernd and Hilla Becher. In Ethridge’s series we also see an almost typological approach; again and again, he appraises and arranges his subjects anew, only from different perspectives and using various stylistic devices.
Types or not, Roe Ethridge’s photographs are rarely flawless. The duality continues into the recurring aspect of ‘something that does not make sense’. And that is what makes his works so exciting, precisely because they have something artificial about them: Ethridge’s photographs smoothly simulate the everyday reality, or otherwise stylize the classical genres of photography, but his approach is subtle and never too well thought out.
There is nothing wrong with the errors, and they are in fact required – they bring us back to true life. In Sacrifice Your Body, we see a Durango SUV sinking into a canal, simply because Ethridge had not parked it properly. The result is a perfect photograph of an over-obvious failure: we feel the powerlessness associated with the loss, but we are also allured to an exquisite image. The photographs are both attractive and alarming, as Ethridge explains: ‘I know that I’m interested in the capacity for an image to charge something ordinary, or to present something fucked-up in a straightforward, “objective” way. A seedless watermelon on the one hand and a hammerhead shark on the other.’ Or of course that well-known phenomenon: the car crash that you cannot help but stare at.
In this paradox surrounding perfection and artificiality, we recognize a master from the generation preceding that of Ethridge, namely the American conceptual artist Christopher Williams. Since the 1970s, Williams has been conducting formal research into the medium of photography, primarily in relation to advertising. His photographs criticize the commercial use of photography, while retaining their power of seduction. That disrupts our outlook and makes us think; in this way Williams elevates that personal interest to a meta level. Ethridge’s series also explore their own themes, and by rearranging the photographs and combining them in unexpected combinations, he elevates them to a layered, conceptual reflection. Williams takes a meticulous and tenacious approach from shoot to presentation. But in the case of Ethridge there’s room for play – more in the spirit of mischievous conceptual artist John Baldessari, who in turn, was Williams’ tutor.
Also arising from the legacy of Baldessari is The Pictures Generation from the 1970s and 1980s, to which artists including Sherry Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman belong. At the time, they were conspicuous because of their use of existing images with a strong link to American consumer culture. Ethridge is part of a new generation persisting on this course: in 2010, post-appropriative practice was the common denominator in the New Photography group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which included work by Ethridge. He too appropriates photographs already in circulation, for example, in newspapers, magazines, catalogues and stock archives.
But it is not only the images that Ethridge borrows, his subjects are also derived from daily life. It follows that another major influence is Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, who (literally) blows up small instantaneous exposures into universal human narratives. Upon closer inspection, his ostensibly realistic depictions reveal something strange or impossible and test every detail of the medium’s (in)ability to record ‘the truth’. Another figure who cannot remain uncited is therefore Andy Warhol, the definitive artist who elevated low culture to high art, and who has the following statement to his name: ‘When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.’
With conspicuous roots in the North American and West European tradition, Ethridge –who works with large teams and teaches at institutions including Yale University– is himself now at the dawn of a contemporary development, which reflects on the ‘synthetic’ aspects of photography. Young artists –such as Lucas Blalock, Daniel Gordon and Kate Steciw– explore the plastic nature of the discipline. They are in fact just as hybrid as their photographs: they grew up with the internet, saturated with images, extremely proficient in image editing and employed in the commercial field. Aware of the history of the medium, they effortlessly blend visual techniques, histories and meanings into new images and narratives.
And finally, although it is the image that initially stands out, Ethridge’s work is also of a remarkably literary nature. The uncanniness in his photographs is often compared to the stories of film director David Lynch and author Carl Hiaassen, who undermine the materialism of American life in their work. Ethridge’s compiled series of photographs are initially reminiscent of a stock archive, but aspects of nostalgia and unease slowly emerge, the non-linear combinations offer the individual photographs new meaning and the everyday suddenly acquires a sense of mystery. Ethridge grew up in Dunwood Village, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and daily life in suburbia is a recurring theme in his work. In the 2005 series County Line, he combines photographs that he took in the suburbs of Atlanta and Long Island, in Upstate New York and around the Canadian Rockies: we see pigeons, postmen, cars, the moon, dead sharks, fir trees, pages of catalogues, mountains, motorways, industrial sights and cellars. The (urban) landscapes are reminiscent of travel photographs, the photographed items take on the role of props and the residents appear to be extras in advertisements. Even in this early series, Ethridge was already addressing his fascination –life in American suburbs– from various perspectives, and moreover proving himself to be a unique storyteller.
What forms more than a fascination is the fugue, a form of classical music composition –best known from Bach– in which repetition plays a significant role. But the word fugue also refers to a mental state characterized by fear and agitation. Ethridge uses this double meaning as a method. In its compositional form, the fugue is concerned with harmonies and varied repetition; using contrapuntal techniques, the theme is introduced over and over in different forms (reversed, mirrored, accelerated, etcetera). There is something obsessive about it: continually returning to the same subject yet also dreading it. Indeed, while he was a pioneer in his field, Ethridge is not the first photographer keen to capture life’s complicated matters with his camera in order to make them more manageable.
Let’s return to the safe world of Shelter Island. In an intimate, secluded environment, the young family enjoys the house, the nature and their time with each other. The references and symbols from American culture offer a sense of nostalgia, while the shiny, brightly coloured images are also somewhat futuristic. Ethridge tirelessly captures the family summer holiday with his camera. In turn, his children make screenshots of his iPhone photo album. When he discovers this, he needs only a moment to decide what to do. Naturally, he adds the screenshot to the series! Who is appropriating who is irrelevant. The image is an outstanding reflection of his oeuvre: an endless chain of photographs of his environment, repetition after repetition, the same subjects depicted again and again (but slightly differently), work and private life effortlessly alternated – a non-linear life story, without context, stretched to the extreme.
It is a glimpse of a marvellous future that is completely dominated by image of image of image. The gallery visitor still thinks they are looking at an artificial stock photograph or classic advertisement, but the children of Roe Ethridge know better.
© Zippora Elders
ABOUT ROE ETHRIDGE
Roe Ethridge was born in 1969 in Miami, Florida, and lives and works in New York. His photographs have appeared in solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow; and Le Consortium, Dijon, France. Ethridge has also been included in group exhibitions at notable institutions including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, Colorado; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Barbican Center, London; MoMA PS1, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
© Roe Ethridge / Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Foam is supported by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, City of Amsterdam, Delta Lloyd, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation