BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150

For This Thing To Happen

Roe Ethridge’s work circulates in the worlds of fashion, commercial and art photography. Christy Lange considers his ‘chaotic inventory’.

BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 OCT 12

Roe Ethridge is an artist based in Brooklyn, USA. A major survey of his work, curated by Anne Pontégnie, originated at Le Consortium Dijon, France, and opened at Museum M Leuven, Belgium, on 27 September. His solo exhibition ‘Interiors I’ is on view at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, Belgium, until 12 October. ‘Interiors ii’ opens at Mai 36 in Zurich, Switzerland, on 25 October. 

Old Fruit, 2010, c-type print,
 127 × 102 cm. All images courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, greengrassi, London, and the artist

In the vast array of photographs that make up his body of work, Roe Ethridge himself appears only a few times. In Untitled (Self-Portrait) (2000), taken in 1999, he looks almost boyish, facing the camera with the collar of his preppy, striped Oxford shirt emerging from his sweater. Mysteriously, he is sporting a nasty black eye. Later, in Self-Portrait (Polaroid) (2008), he reappears with longer, shaggy hair, a broad smile on his round, handsome face and a twinkle in his eye. The Polaroid format suggests it’s a test shot – he might be standing in for his own model. Another photo from the same group of work shows him flashing a similarly open smile through his scruffy beard. He’s wearing a navy captain’s hat and jacket, and is giving someone off-camera a friendly, sheepish wave.

In these self-portraits, as in many of his works, we get only glimpses into Ethridge’s life: it’s often ambiguous whether the scene in front of the camera is spontaneous or staged. The groupings of images he assembles for his books and exhibitions are just as likely to include out-takes of professional models styled for fashion shoots as non-models posing against a backdrop in his studio. He might focus on the detail of the carpet in his childhood home in Atlanta, Georgia (Basement Carpet, 2003), or aim at something more distant and generic, as in Moon (2003); still others are taken at a local surfing spot, or through the window of his Brooklyn apartment. Some of his editorial commissions have been based on personal memories, as in the Vice magazine spread about ballet students at the Juilliard School, inspired by the posters his sister used to have in her bedroom; or they might derive from a Google image search, or a combination of both. 

Ethridge sees himself as part of ‘the image service industry’ – an industry that includes commercial or fashion photography as much as it does art photography.1 He considers the challenges and parameters of a fashion shoot, a commercial advertisement or an editorial commission as valid as his own ‘self-assignments’ in or outside of his studio. After all, they have similar creative conditions and the potential to yield a work of art. When he shows the products of these various assignments in a single body of work, the individual images rarely fulfil our expectations for the genre or fit neatly into a predetermined typology: for example, the face of a model for a ‘Beauty 101’ lipstick shoot for Allure magazine is also a candid portrait of a woman with chapped lips; a red bag hanging casually from a lattice in his sun-filled studio is a deliberately constructed composition. In Ethridge’s photographs, what we expect to be generic, staged or slick can slip into the spontaneous or personal – or vice-versa – and before we know it the typologies begin to fall apart. 

Studio with Red Bag, 2009, 130 ×100 cm, C-type print

To make sense of his seemingly schizophrenic, ‘chaotic inventory’ of images (the term he prefers over ‘archive’, which he finds ‘churchy’)2 Ethridge has to have what he calls a ‘split personality’; he must be both artist and editor. Ironically, it’s not only this split personality that holds his photographic inventories together, but a single one: ‘It’s not exactly a diary or a life-story; it’s more like I have to be there for this thing to happen […] It’s the life of a photographer who lives in New York in the 2000s. If I didn’t live in New York, it wouldn’t be the same.’3 This is as close to an admission of realism as he will come; he refuses to settle into art photography’s pre-determined categories of realism or conceptualism.

Ethridge’s most recent self-portrait appears in the introduction to his 2011 artist’s book Le Luxe, published by MACK. In Untitled (Point Break) (2010), his face has been clumsily Photoshopped beneath Patrick Swayze’s flowing blond hair, beside Keanu Reeves, in a poster for the 1991 movie Point Break. The poster appears in a composite of several images scanned at once: a junk-mail advertisement for Charley’s SolarGro ‘Cape Cod’ greenhouses; a black and white snapshot of a surfer on the beach; and the traces of a swimsuit calendar. This single page seems to introduce Ethridge’s book – and his wider practice – as one in which all kinds of imagery can exist on one plane: personal and generic, appropriated and unique, high and low, digital and analogue. As restless as this subject matter is, at the centre is Ethridge: the artist who takes the pictures, and his other half, the more ‘idiosyncratic’ editor, who alters, appropriates and arranges them.

Unexpectedly, the body of the book that follows this frenetic introduction largely comprises images made during a commission for Goldman Sachs, for which Ethridge photographed the construction of the financial firm’s new Lower Manhattan headquarters, from the groundbreaking in 2005 to the installation of the last glass panes in 2010, encompassing the crash of 2008 and the financial firm’s investigation by the federal government – when the mood, as Ethridge saw it, ‘shifted palpably’. His documents of the construction range from close-ups of a gravel pit filled with viscous brown fluid to orange buckets overflowing with unused cement to distant views of the building’s ghost-like shell on the skyline, taken from a high-rise in Jersey City. Some of these images have the feeling of out-takes or discards, shown two or three to a page. Accordingly, they have miscellaneous titles like Concrete Pour 3 (2007) or Lobby 14 (2009). Ethridge’s take on Hillary Clinton’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony shows her in close conversation with Henry Paulson in Groundbreaking 9 (Hank and Hillary) (2005), rather than posing for the conventional press photo ops – as if to drive home the point that these images are not meant to constitute a comprehensive, or even fully competent, archive. 

Moon, 2003, c-type print, 84 ×104 cm

As soon as the sequence of images in the book begins to cohere into something like a chronological narrative, Ethridge interrupts the flow with a more enigmatic inclusion, taken from his parallel inventories of still lifes or photographs, more likely to be known by those familiar with his artistic practice. These full-page images are at once more deliberate and more intimate: a sliced apple covered in wasps (Apple Bees, 2009); an empty Mason Jar (2009) with a torn label for maple syrup; an amateur model wrapping bubble gum around her finger (Louise, Bubble Gum x3, 2011). The photographs are like punctuation marks that slow or halt the continuity of the Goldman Sachs building’s progressive construction. In each one, Ethridge never leaves the potential for beauty far from the frame. A photograph of an ashtray or a folding chair is lent the classically beautiful composition of an Irving Penn still life, while retaining the rough-hewn qualities of the everyday.

The effect of bringing disparate genres and assignments together in the same publication is to throw the simultaneous ‘image inventories’, created over the same time span, into relief. Not only do we read each one anew, but a third meaning arises in between the two. The result could be dissonant or disorientating, but Ethridge assembles them as a sort of choreographed spatial collage unfolding over time, what he describes as a ‘fugue’. He isn’t just taking the images on these various assignments; he’s also arranging and rearranging them into a montage that expands the meaning of one in isolation. And it’s in the space between and among them, where thoughts and meanings can rise up.

Last summer, Ethridge presented a selection of images from Le Luxe at Andrew Kreps in New York. The show included, among others, close-ups of the footprints of workman’s boots on the dirt-covered fourth floor of the Goldman Sachs building – what would become the financial firm’s trading floor; an eerie still life of an I Love NY Bag (2011) caught in mid-air against a red painted wall; and workmen hoisting massive panes of glass into place (Curtain Wall 11, 2007). In the latter, the construction crew performs something approximate to the reverse process of what took place at Ground Zero, where steel frames from the World Trade Center (only a block away from this new building) were hauled from the wreckage. Among and between this suite of images, something like a portrait of post-9/11 New York shifted into focus. But Ethridge would never make the theme so explicit. Whenever it started to gel into a formal relationship, a more idiosyncratic image, like the enlarged lo-res jpeg of a shop-bought Christmas Bow (2011), frustrated any attempt at a final analysis. Ethridge says he inserted the bow ‘in a nonchalant way, that wasn’t intended’.4 But it’s not random: the title of his second show at Andrew Kreps in 2002 was also ‘The Bow’, named for an image of a cheesy satin ribbon he found in his mother’s basement. A bow, he says, ‘completes the package’.5 There are no neat bows on Ethridge’s work, however – any suggestion of unity or completion can just as easily be unravelled.

Louise, 2011, c-type print, 1.7 × 1.3 m

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the things Ethridge’s still lifes depict – like the bow – are, in fact, also commercial products, some more obviously so than others. A watermelon on a countertop in Canada (Watermelon) (2004) bears a sticker reading ‘Seedless What-A-Melon’; a still-life composition of a shoe and a glove on a gingham tablecloth is Vans and Burton Glove (2008). These images suggest that the category of product photography might be much broader or more flexible than the art world is willing to credit it for. Today, much of Ethridge’s audience is accustomed to these diluted categories – ‘advertorials’ in magazines, ‘sponsored content’ on websites, luxury goods given shout-outs in hip-hop records. An image of an Hermès soap case in an exhibition doesn’t mean we’re being sold something, or that the artist has sold out. It might mean that Ethridge’s work speaks to a generation less obviously concerned by – or critical of – the consequences. Of course, this kind of mixture could easily become an inconsistent or dubious affair in which the integrity of an art work is compromised by the demands of a commercial client. But Ethridge seems to have an internal barometer – call it a strong sense of authorship – that makes his simultaneous jobs mutually complementary rather than mutually destructive. Much of this is attributable to his skill as an editor who can effectively assemble the outcomes of his assignments into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But it might also be due to his attitude. He is bracingly forthright and transparent about any perceived conflict between his commercial work and his art work, and has a casual way of telling an amusing or revealing personal anecdote that can make you forget you were questioning it. He is able to operate in these seemingly conflicting worlds, to wear these many hats, because as an artist he is not conflicted. Though his process may be deliberate, even strategic, it is not ironic or disingenuous.

What Ethridge terms the ‘Outro’ to Le Luxe is a con­founding mash-up of pictures of waves, harvested from the ‘pic ’n’ clip’ folder on his computer: pixellated images of surfers; a trashy online ad featuring a bikini-clad model on the beach; the sun setting over the ocean; the winner of a surfing competition accepting his prize. Surfing has remained one of the most consistent themes throughout his work. Two exhibitions and books have been dedicated to the urban shoreline where he surfs: ‘Rockaway, NY’ (2007) and ‘Rockaway Redux’ (2008). From Rockaway, he has photographed the ocean at all times of day – with and without surfers – from the boardwalk or, in the case of Aloha Jake (2008), from the jetty at dawn. The sequence of webcam screen-grabs of the Rockaway shoreline is from a website he regularly checks and, in that sense, as pixellated and disposable as it seems, it constitutes a sort of visual diary. No matter how generic the image or its source, in Ethridge’s work there is always a possibility that it’s a product or reflection of a life lived.

While he would never describe them as diaristic, Ethridge says his images today are more about him ‘being there’. As he describes it: ‘Your body has to be there to make decisions.’ His assignments are about ‘putting myself in compromising situations where I don’t know what the result will be’6: whether that’s on the field of the Super Bowl with an assistant and a hand-held flash (as he did in his untitled project for this issue of frieze), or trying to shoot the interior of his silo-shaped studio. All situations, no matter how artificial or authentic, are potential subjects. Ethridge knows how to capture an unguarded, tender portrait or a spontaneous, intimate still life, but he also knows that the photographer’s role is not always to catch that fleeting moment of beauty, but to be able to construct it for the camera.

1 Interview with Fionn Meade in Spike magazine, issue 32, Summer 2012, p.79
2 Ibid.
3 Author in conversation with the artist, 2 August 2012
4–6 Ibid.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.