I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Humor, commerce, and family play big roles in Ethridge’s conceptual photography.
“There’s an importance to being droll.” It’s one of the first things I remember Roe Ethridge saying to me when we met in the early 2000s. He was referring to a conversation I’d just published with John Baldessari in which the preeminent artist endorsed a wry approach to Conceptual art. Ethridge possesses precisely this kind of structural wit and willingness to subvert the prevailing conventions of art, whether by means of a fashion sensibility, or with images of his children that seem like they are at once from a family album and, in his words, a “post-apocalyptic J.Crew catalog.” Nearest Neighbor, Ethridge’s retrospective exhibition currently on view at Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, makes it easy to follow his shifting modes of appropriation and crisscrossing of photographic typologies. His practice befits an era marked by the increasing reach of imaging technology and the porousness of the art world. Those first words about the importance of being droll—a sensibility of revelation through play—remain a telling reminder of an artistic practice whose gravity stems precisely from not taking things too seriously.
Tim Griffin Your work can be deceptively complex, whether in terms of genre or context. So let’s begin with something concrete. Why did you make Thanksgiving 1984 (2009)?
Roe Ethridge It was Cecilia Dean and Visionaire who set it into motion. Their annual project in 2010 was a digital calendar, and they had selected fifty-two curators to select one artist per day for a week. Matthew Brannon picked me as one of his artists. Cecilia pointed out that my day happened to fall on Thanksgiving and then asked if I had any Thanksgiving-related pictures. I didn’t, but I thought that I probably should and decided to make one for the calendar. I googled what Thanksgiving looks like in stock imagery. Then I remembered that in 1984 my aunt, uncle, and cousins came to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. I was fifteen, and they brought my twenty-year-old cousin, whom I suddenly developed a crush on. That’s the picture that I need to recreate, I thought, that forbidden desire. It was embarrassing. I felt like, Oh my God, I’m a bad person; I’ve got a crush on my cousin. That shame and desire felt like something I could work with to create the picture. We were able to get Hilary Rhoda, an amazing model, to play the role of my cousin, and I also worked with Andy Harman, a set and prop person in the commercial world, and a sculptor in his own right.
TG Did Harman have access to all the materials from ‘84?
RE I got a stylist to pull a vintage Ralph Lauren sweater and described what the dining room looked like to Andy. So there was a lot of interpretation. I recreated the angle of my view of her. She had sat diagonally across from me.
TG Thinking about this in terms of your broader work and how it weaves in and out of cultural and photographic types, were you thinking of stock photography when you were first invited to do the project?
RE It was really a matter of where to start. What’s the baseline? What’s the lowest common denominator of the Thanksgiving image? It’s so American and so Norman Rockwell—like a million advertisements over the years because it has such diversity and uniformity at the same time.
TG The image neatly articulates what you once said about not being a “post-contemporary” artist—a perception your advertising work for the recent Berlin Biennial, given the show’s thesis, might have invited. Instead, as you’ve said, you typically point in the opposite direction, toward the past. What you summon is not exactly history so much as it is stock photography, both in terms of the images we have in our heads and our libidinal attachments to them. The vision of Thanksgiving is stock, yet it triggers personal memories.
RE I think that goes back to a word that never gets used anymore: the notion of the “everyman.” Today, everyone is unique via Instagram or whatever. Everyone has their own look or identification, and although there isn’t a common man anymore, there’s still a commonality. For me, there was a script for life in middle-class suburban Atlanta, for my parents’ hopes that I would be a good Christian.
TG I’m sorry, man.
RE (laughter) My parents have reconciled with the loss now. But yes, that’s part of the picture, too—a generic, anonymous history that is also mine.
TG Speaking of family and personal history, and of how they might interface with commercial work and stock photography, some of the photographs in your show at Contemporary Arts Center are of your own kids on the beach.
RE Those pictures are from Fort Tilden, here in New York.
TG Right. They don’t have the same commercial sheen. They don’t announce their own artifice in the way that Thanksgiving 1984 does. Everything has artifice, of course, and style. Yet these images seem more evocative of domestic photography as opposed to commercial photography.
RE The Fort Tilden sequence was shot on March 14, 2015, over the course of a walk on the beach with my kids. I thought, Maybe I’ll take the camera, maybe I’ll get a shot. But later, when I went back through the images, I realized that it was the entire outing—every shot I took in that hour and a half—that made the picture. There was something about it that was average and common, even though, with the fog, it also had a certain spookiness about it. It’s hard to see, but Auggie, my son, has a scab on his face, and he’s making these gestures. He and his sister are performing for me, or with me, so there’s this complicity. As innocent as they are, my kids aren’t innocent. They’re informed. It had the feeling—and I think you’ll appreciate this—of a post-apocalyptic J.Crew catalog.
TG Yeah. (laughter)
RE At the end, I started passing the camera to them, and they started taking pictures, too. Some of these aren’t very good. But I didn’t want the CAC exhibition and the catalog to be the last word on my work, to say, “I’m the artist formerly known as Roe Ethridge. Here’s all of my work.” It was a way to keep it open.
TG Is that by virtue of the way the exhibition catalog, Neighbors, suggests an overall narrative sequence, or because there’s an informality and intimacy to it?
RE Both. I wanted to treat it as a catalogue raisonné and not privilege one image or series over another. I liked the fact that the Fort Tilden section deals with time in a different way than does the Nearest Neighbor section, which spans seventeen years rather than an hour and a half. The images of animals in the final Sanctuary section were originally shot for Apology magazine. I like the idea that these animals are rescued and now live in a safe place where hippies take care of them. It’s very grounding for me. Metaphorically, I feel like I’m the hippie and my images are the rescued animals.
Having the Fort Tilden and Sanctuary series flanking the Nearest Neighbor images that are actually in the Contemporary Arts Center show was a way to hold them in check. Now, you can say that these bodies of work are not really equal or comparable, and that’s true, but they’re still gathered together and occupying the same pages. As a result, instead of being a singular authority on my work, the catalog is, I feel, more democratic. There’s a thematic line running through the whole volume, and this was important for the curator, Kevin Moore, and for me. But it avoids a “greatest hits” presentation.
TG How does this presentation manifest itself in the exhibition?
RE The show is organized into distinct sections. You see a run of five images when you first get off the elevator, then you turn right and step into another run of five or six images. Then you go into another room and it’s another five or six. We had pet names for them like the Shelter Island room, the Sacrifice Your Body room, and the Industry, Montage, and Boutique rooms.
TG So there isn’t continuity throughout the whole show. It’s more like there are these little tidal pools of images.
RE Yes, but the rooms are also open and can get polluted by pictures in adjacent rooms.
TG You’re also mixing photos that have been shown in galleries and ones that were commissioned by magazines—for instance, the image of the supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
TG Yes, Gisele on the Phone (2013) was an editorial assignment. But it became part of the Sacrifice Your Body series because I was thinking of Gisele as a mother, the loving mother on the other end of the phone.
TG Thinking about the way in which you deal with the circulation of images, how do you understand the duality of art and commerce in your work?
RE That’s the question I’m trying to ask my audience. I know that’s not an ideal answer, but it’s an honest one. I’m a photographer living and working in New York City in the twenty-first century, and that means that I’m dealing with inventories and flows of media, images, money, and so forth. The question is, How can I make a commissioned or editorial image and still do something personal? An image has to sing. It’s not just something to decode and find the true meaning of. I have to feel its harmonies and disharmonies. It’s like a song. It’s musical.
TG What’s always interested me about your work is how it’s as if a new context is being introduced into whatever is being photographed. I remember once you shot the trees on a highway median as if they were fashion models.
RE (laughter) Yes, I did.
TG You’re taking a certain template, and maybe even a medium, and introducing it into the subject. So it’s a reversal of the poles of context and object.
RE I see what you’re saying, but for me, it’s more about how the screen works and how InDesign works. They allow for certain associations, which are really a kind of misunderstanding or misrepresentation of context, like treating a pigeon as if it were a heroic bird.
TG That’s true.
RE It’s like that Andy Warhol thing I always go back to: “Get it exactly wrong.” I’m paraphrasing.
TG What’s the difference for you, as a photographer, between the late ’90s and now? The ease with which you can move images across the screen today and create the juxtapositions you like to make has greatly increased. The process is obviously a lot more fluid—and maybe this is the crux of something. You’re interested in juxtapositions of high and low, the commercial and the personal. At the same time, you immediately bring up Warhol or other historical examples in order to be able to tangle with them. This approach may be specific to your generation.
RE It was important to me to escape the prison of a thesis, a project, or an idea. When I first came to New York City, I assumed I needed to have something conceptual or theoretical to say. When I started doing commercial photography, I had no idea what I was doing. I was not trained as a professional, and I realized I was sort of a dilettante. That discovery was amazing and incredibly stressful. I’m sure it took days off my life, but doing beauty pictures for Allure or landscapes for the New York Times, I felt like I was discovering something that was more interesting, better, and more soulful than writing down an idea and trying to illustrate it. That discovery became part of what motivates me to make work, whether it’s in the commercial world or as an artist.
TG Where’s the soulfulness in that?
RE It’s in the picture. In the beginning, I was trying very hard to make iconographic imagery, like UPS Sticker (2000), the pigeon series (2000–), and other very singular things. But then, something happened in an exchange with my wife Nancy when I shot Nancy with Polaroid (2003–2006). I wanted to recreate this Polaroid ad from 1966, and she was my model; but there was something in that exchange that was so intimate, and the image was so humorous, that it led me to make more images at the intersection of the generic and the personal. Underneath, it has something very real.
Another picture, Refrigerator (1999), came from an assignment about vernacular decor for the New York Times Magazine. The refrigerator door seems like the place where family decor goes, so I shot this picture in my parents’ house in Atlanta.
TG I recognize the cabinets.
RE (laughter) My idea was to turn the assignment around and make it personal. If you look closely at the refrigerator, you can see a picture of me as a baby, one of my sister, artwork by me—all this stuff. It’s quite clear that it’s a middle-class suburban refrigerator. But then there’s another picture, Model Prints on Broken Pencil (2014), which has multiple layers of grids and different images sitting on top of a picture of a prop pencil with a broken tip. I really like that one because I imagine it as the “pencil of nature,” after the name William Henry Fox Talbot gave in 1844 to his book of some of the first-ever photographs. But the pencil’s tip is broken.
TG How much of that is discernible to viewers? All of your images have a personal, psychological charge, but the texture of the image itself, how it gets made, seems to run counter to that. It’s a lot cooler.
RE True. I’m repurposing images. They’re shot for one intention, and then repurposed for another. In doing this, I’m breaking something out of its context or its original intention. But I don’t want to have a literal translation of the image saying, “This is Roe’s childhood hallway.” At the same time, something in it is pictorial or personal—it’s definitely telling you you’re not in Brooklyn.
TG You might be in a post-apocalyptic J.Crew catalog.
TG The last section of the catalog is called Sanctuary. Why the fascination with animals in this section?
RE I shot that series at an animal rescue center. What interested me here was the notion of the sanctuary, which seems to me like an impossible idea. I like the word, and it’s as if the animals are remaindered livestock. They’re actually abused animals that now find themselves in a sort of little heaven on earth. But they still shit and piss, like all living creatures. I see them as a damaged ideal. They’re almost like broken toys.
TG The broken pencil of nature, again.
TG Do you think that your images are witty or dystopian?
RE Don’t make me say it. They’re witopian. Pretty dystopian, but I’m working on changing my attitude, so maybe they’re getting a little more witty.
I don’t believe that they’re one thing. I mean I love the dystopian. I love Michel Houellebecq and his vision of the near future in its horrible presence. I really relate to that. That kind of dread is exciting. It’s not that it feels real, but that it touches an emotional place of horror.
TG It’s very human, even within a futuristic setting.
RE Yes, exactly. The human part is what I would like to think is happening in my show. If there’s something dystopian here, there’s also this granular detail that redeems it or, at least, perseveres in the face of significant obstacles.
TG There are a number of photographers working now who deal with the circulation and juxtaposition of images, with how an image moves from place to place. What’s strange is the degree to which the terms of production and circulation exist in a higher state of tension when it comes to the human face and figure. By contrast, you tend to privilege vernacular objects. That seems pretty unique to me. Are there other photographers or artists you look to in this regard?
RE I was talking to somebody recently, and they asked me about my earliest influences. “Honestly,” I answered, “Lee Friedlander and Andy Warhol.” Those are two artists who are not supposed to go together, but do.
TG How so?
RE They both have a droll quality, and a planar, compositional style. They’re also both prolific and interested in mirroring the world in a very cool, distant way, as if they’re saying, “Here, look at this,” but also, at the same time, they’re also saying, “No comment.”
TG What do you like most about Friedlander?
RE Initially, it was his sense of composition and humor. The pictures aren’t obvious jokes, but there’s usually something buried in them that’s funny and self-deprecating, and that deals with the world and a person’s place in it. His images very much reflect the life of an ordinary guy.
TG What’s funny is how much of it really is street photography or taken in an almost photojournalistic way, but the shot that Friedlander ultimately selected seems staged. Time and again, it seems like he had to have organized the shot—and that everybody’s in on it.
RE (laughter) That’s exactly right. It’s as if there’s a subconscious tableau for him that he’s just able to capture.
TG I think so. It’s weird for its time, and I wouldn’t have said that about Friedlander if you hadn’t mentioned him alongside Warhol. Is there anyone else?
RE As far as contemporary photography, I get different things from different people. I love Lucas Blalock, Torbjørn Rødland, Annette Kelm, Anne Collier. And Josephine Pryde has crushed me a few times. Michael Schmidt is maybe the most important for me. If there’s a bible, it’s his book U-ni-ty, where you can see the accident, and where intention and wildly ambitious scope meet the personal, intimate, and disturbing. U-ni-ty is a history of Germany and its modernity, of his home as subject. It also has all these beautifully bad pictures of seemingly ordinary young Germans. Schmidt’s book juxtaposes many things in a way that had a profound influence on me.
I was also pen pals with Thomas Ruff when I lived in Atlanta and just after I moved to New York. He sent me a catalog that included his pictures of newspapers, the night sky, houses, and his portraits. It was for a Kunsthalle show with four bodies of work. When they made the catalog, the images got all mixed up. For me, that was like a madeleine, like, “Oh!” And they weren’t just personal images, pictures of his friends. They were mediated through a formal device. It was the same picture every time. One of the things this retrospective is helping me understand is that there’s a built-in artifice and a boundary for what is acceptable practice in commercial photography, and I can’t help but tinker with it, or try to take a layer of veneer off of it. But when I’m taking pictures of my kids or Nancy or anything personal, I’m trying to put artifice and veneer back into the picture. It’s like I want to tell you something personal, but I’m sure as hell not gonna tell you everything.
TG Is that still hard to do or is it increasingly accepted in the commercial world?
RE There are so many different voices in that world, and people are constantly challenging its boundaries.
TG To what degree does the veneer still exist in the same way that it did years ago?
RE There have been a lot of changes in photography because of social media. In the art world, there are parallel and comparable shifts that are at times seismic, at times cyclical. At one moment, it’s the curator’s world, and in another, it’s the abstract painter’s world, or—I just read today—it’s the collector’s world. In the commercial photo or image service industry, Instagram followings seem to have quite a bit of influence, and there’s a lot of hand wringing over this.
TG With all these changes, are you working differently than you might have once upon a time?
RE Sure I am, though it’s hard to explain because I’m in the middle of it right now. It’s like, “Okay, you want me to shoot this on my iPhone? We’re gonna do an Instagram campaign?”
TG Has that happened?
RE Yeah, I was asked to do an ad campaign with snaps on the phone that would go on Instagram immediately.
TG You brought up the art world. Given how porous it is, and how its aesthetics are often contingent on precisely the kind of ad campaign you’re talking about, it’s intriguing that you’ve long worked across and between the vocabularies of art and commerce. But what does it mean to make an ad for an art institution, as you did when you shot the Babak Radboy pictures for the recent Berlin Biennale, as opposed to making art that’s quoting or deconstructing advertising?
RE It became a brand image. There’s the bag, right there. (laughter) But you know, it’s also the case that work is work. That’s the objective part. I felt lucky to be invited to participate. I wouldn’t say it’s not political, but it’s also just work. We’ve talked about the difference between the personal and the professional and the weird nether-regions of doing an ad campaign for an art biennial. At the same time, it was really fun and really hard, and we got a bunch of great pictures out of it, which were then combined with text by Chris Kraus. I loved that process. It was very satisfying. I don’t really care if the biennial was deemed a success or not. We did the pre-production, we shot it, we edited it, and it’s done.
TG The ambiguities that you’re talking about, I think they resonate more strongly than people would care to admit.
RE Certainly. The image is so often, well, in the service of something or someone. The painting that you see on the cover of the catalog is a photograph of the painting. That’s a little bit base, but the photographer is still the person with the truck on moving day. The art world is still saying something like, “Can you come by and help me move this stuff? I can’t do it without you.”
TG Yeah, and you’re the guy who breaks their fancy vase and fifty-five inch flatscreen.
RE (laughter) Exactly, and gets lost. Or delivers them to the wrong house. “Oh man, sorry to hear that, buddy. If there’s anything I can do to help you put that vase back together. …”
Tim Griffin is the executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, where he has curated projects by Chantal Akerman, Ralph Lemon, and others. He recently co-organized the group exhibition From Minimalism into Algorithm. He has written articles for Mousse, October, and Artforum, and catalog essays for John Baldessari, Taryn Simon, and others. His poetry has previously appeared in BOMB, and he is currently completing a volume of his own writings, titled Compression.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee