Roe Ethridge: Do What You Know
June 2012

Roe Ethridge: Do What You Know Interview PDF Download

Roe Ethridge’s photographic imagery ranges from still life setups and fashion shoots to the everyday glow of a pink rose or the awkward lean of a mop – balancing spontaneity and staging to blur the boundary between fact and fiction, equal parts casual charm and high-end glamour. Fionn Meade sat down with the American artist to discuss his self-described role as an "editor" of his images for a recent survey exhibition at Le Consortium in Dijon, the first overview of the artist’s work.

FIONN MEADE: For the show at Le Consortium, how did you approach it?

ROE ETHRIDGE: I thought about just re-staging exhibitions to highlight how the exhibition work is different than the published work. But it quickly became clear that it would be some sort of historical display, and not really a live show. When Anne Pontégnie, the curator, was trying to explain the show to the people at the Consortium, she kept referring to the books. And that was the starting point, using my book projects as an inspiration for how to sequence things. Since 2008, and maybe even before, I’ve been using a kind of "editor" voice a lot. I shoot much more than I show, and the works are often not produced with the intent that: "This one will go here on the wall, and then we’ll shoot an apple with bees on it and that one will go there." That editor voice is selecting and placing images – it’s really half of my job. I’ve always thought about this mode of working as musical, and I’ve often referred to it as "fugue."

MEADE: The notion of a visual "fugue," which you’ve used,reminds me of a distinction that Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker and novelist, uses to talk about paraphrase as opposed to appropriation. In his view, the most important principle of montage is the "in-between," juxtapositions with enough tension that a third image arises in the mind’s eye. He relates this to the idea of paraphrase. In your shows there’s always a sense of movement around the room that isn’t reading left to right. Rather, it reads and then goes back, reads and returns, reads and departs.

ETHRIDGE: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say there’s the working photographer who takes the picture and makes sure the print looks good, and then there’s the editor person who is paraphrasing or "fugueing out."

MEADE: "Fugueing out." That’s funny.

ETHRIDGE: I like the idea of paraphrasing because photographers and artists like Christopher Williams and Sharon Lockhart direct a camera operator in order to quote or cite a particular reference, while I’m more interested in the craft part or the: "How do you light this thing? How do you make it look like an Outerbridge?"

MEADE: Speaking of Paul Outerbridge’s work, it must have been like a light going off for you at some point.

ETHRIDGE: Yeah, I didn’t really know the work at first. I knew the Ide Collar image from 1922, but just from photo history. Early on I had this real guilty pleasure in Pictorialism, before photography was so much about publishing and the notion of the painter. I liked it because it was so antithetical to what we would associate with Jeff Wall as the known photo-painter guy.

MEADE: Also opposed to the idea of making allegories that was central to the 80s.

ETHRIDGE: All the Pictorialists wanted to be modern artists. In immersing myself in a sticky sweet guilty pleasure sort of way, it got me thinking about what happened after Pictorialism. How there’s a Clarence White school and the notion of applied versus artistic, etc. When I was shooting with a large-format camera and slowing everything down, trying to be a different kind of photo-painter person and definitely not a decisive moment type, Outerbridge hit me like a ton of bricks.

MEADE: This relates to the notion of assignment and secondary register or, as you’ve put it, the working photographer, a production-oriented reality that’s so clearly part of Outerbridge’s story as well – how he was part of the avant-garde milieu, but at a time when that wasn’t antithetic to doing commercial work.

ETHRIDGE: Right, doing a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, the most banal magazine of its time.

MEADE: Man Ray also crossed those boundaries. I’m curious about how a secondary register works in your images, because when you’re on assignment, you’re following someone else’s vision. When these images are put in dialogue with a different inflection of intimacy or even a different notion of caring about the image, the assignment becomes part of the conceptual framework of what you’re doing.

ETHRIDGE: Just to give a bit of the boring life story: My dad was an avid amateur photographer. I found this Kodachrome box with thirty-six slides in it and an image of me as a four-year-old kid holding a sign that says "5.6 at a 30th, 5.6 at a 60th." I had no memory of the particular image but knew that I was participating and that he wasn’t trying to take a cute picture of a kid. He needed the face and the right light reading. But this isn’t a bad memory, not like in the basement making me do it. We didn’t have a basement; we lived in Miami.

MEADE: But you’re there in the image, producing an image.

ETHRIDGE: And growing up around it. In the way kids do, trying to rebel from authority, but also to satisfy or connect. They certainly didn’t want me to go to art school. That wasn’t the script. After art school I worked as an assistant to catalog photographers in Atlanta because that was the main industry. I got exposed to the lowest common denominator of commercial photography. It taught me a lot about what I don’t want to do, but also that a catalogue aesthetic is such a ubiquitous part of our imagery and the things we buy. You buy it online now, but before you could flip through a service merchandise catalog and have fantasies like, "Wow, I’m going to buy this girl a heart pendant necklace." But someone had to make the picture of the thing.

MEADE: When you circulate a version of this neutralized, flattened-out imagery of stock desire, there is a particular sense of era in your work. But the catalog aesthetic and periodizing that also exists are no longer available to romanticize in the same way.

ETHRIDGE: Well, at first I wanted to be a conceptual artist, but I don’t claim that anymore. Whether it’s an experience that actually happened or just this resonance left over from whatever – a Service Merchandise catalog from 1982 – for me, it gets mixed in with the house I grew up in and how it was covered in wallpaper, even the ceiling. An interior decorator from Alabama did the house and lived there, and then we bought the house from her family. I grew up with this intense patterning everywhere. So, in school I liked Matisse. But for me I wonder if that’s because of the house or Matisse.

Like that picture on the wall, Thanksgiving 1984. It has everything, all the traits. It’s partly a personal story. My cousin came to Thanksgiving in 1984. She was like four or five years older than me, and I kind of had a crush on her. Then by trying to recreate it, I got to work with Hilary Rhoda, an awesome model. But it was because it was a commission for Visionaire; without it, I wouldn’t have gotten Hilary Rhoda. Cecilia Dean, the editor of Visionaire, asked me, "Do you have a Thanksgiving picture? It seems like you would." And I was like, "No, I don’t. But I should." So, I immediately thought of a stock register still life, but that also led to: "What else is there?" Then I remembered that story. Do what you know. Talk about what you know.

MEADE: I wanted to ask about the sense of recall in your work, what Freud would call the uncanny, and more specifically about staging recall. Your sense of scenography gives things a glaze of artifice that is false and complicates the layering of desire. As you say, something that may or may not be a memory. It’s here that your work moves between a mode of documentary investigation or inquiry and staged moments of recall. It’s interesting how you stagger these, building in a lag time of recall where you go back to things you’ve shot via very different prompts.

ETHRIDGE: When an image is freed of its caption, it becomes a different object and has new terms of use. For me, it’s like it might have failed in relation to all this other stuff, so this commissioned image gets designated: "Don’t throw it away, but just forget about it." And then two years later it’s like, "What was the problem with it? I really like this one now." But I would say today that I’m just much busier because it’s going good, and I’ve sort of embraced a lot more. I did a pinup story for a German magazine, which was essentially an excuse to photograph this studio, this building – which may or may not get torn down in a month – but to do it retro with pretty girls in bikinis or whatever.

MEADE : By using an editorial distance, it also allows you to bring in the Henry Paulson/Hillary Rodham Clinton image [Groundbreaking (Hank and Hillary), 2005] from the truly weird timing that you were commissioned by Goldman Sachs to document the building of new headquarters right before and as the economy tanked. It gets a little Dante-esque in the book, as if the various floors are circling downward

ETHRIDGE: Of course, some of it is just luck. It’s such a big part of being a photographer. You can muscle through and do jobs with some of the most talented stylists and lighting people, and then I just try to get out of the way. But the best images are the ones where something goes wrong a little bit. It’s just a light touch that makes it suddenly mine.

MEADE: Your work often has this quality of incidental beauty.

ETHRIDGE: It’s so much a part of the shooting. Letting those things occur without it being part of the plan, letting it malfunction. The selection comes later. Same with the Hank Paulson shot that was in the book.

On every computer there’s this stuff. I knew that I wanted to use an inventory of images as a balance against that Dante-esque, potential moroseness of the Goldman Sachs thing. Not to hide the Goldman Sachs reality, but to counter it. In Le Luxe there’s a sort of musical introduction that happens, and then it becomes a big, epic tune. The counter figure is the surf JPEG as an outro in the book composition, a little bit like a "wave after wave" kind of thing.

While working with that imagery, I also began to do "lo-res" things. I did a commission for Michael Ovitz and photographed his artwork. He’s got a white-on-white Jasper Johns flag, which is kind of like brown-on-brown now. At first, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I tried laying stuff on top of it, but I just wanted to do what the man said. Do something, do something else, and another thing, and then leave it. That’s how "lo-resing" things became simple and obvious. Sometimes it’s just that. Simple and clear. It’s not mine, it’s not yours, it’s ours.

MEADE: But in response to Tumblr and the sortable image archive effect of the Internet and our digital experience with images, the way to interrupt the reception of images and create alienation is arguably getting more difficult. Not to talk about the effects of immaterial labor, but more simply how it’s no longer about interrupting a cultural narrative that is coherent. You’re not parodying the melodrama of a Marlboro ad campaign or playing off of soap opera or paparazzi posturing as with Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman.

ETHRIDGE: For me, this returns to the "fugue" idea as an exercise composition. It’s experimental in its implementation. It’s like, "What if we played the notes left to right, right to left, inside out, reversed, upside down, at the same time?" In a sense, these things are part of our everyday choices, but made systematic. It’s John Cage, but with Tumblr and the Internet as integral chance components contributing.

MEADE: It’s not random, it has sensibility, it has politics, it has desire. And that’s important, because it’s an illusion that we can sort image archives at the snap of a whip or click – that we are in control of this composite image of culture.

ETHRIDGE: There’s an overriding sense of this. It reminds me of the Fischli/Weiss titles The Visible World and Suddenly this Overview. It feels like this is what’s happened to us, or at least our notions of from where we look. It’s as if we can see everything in the moment because of this, getting high on our own supply. But we’ll soon find out that there’s always someone and something behind all this.

MEADE: The idea of a surveyable world is problematic. You think about panoramic urges and their prominence in past nationalisms. But now the idea of the surveyable is becoming composite. Twenty years ago it might have been like Andreas Gursky’s view of the world, but a new kind of rhetoric now exists, where the composite image and data visualization are increasingly viewed as being capable of surveying and giving us a vision of the world. But it’s important to see the composite and archival image as something that is flawed and built of subjectivity and power.

ETHRIDGE: I have a hard time with the word archive anyway, because I feel like I’m in the commerce department here. For better or worse, I work for the image service industry. And what I have is inventory. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love the archive – in fact, maybe too much. I love the notion of German typological photography, objective photography. How you wind up with Christopher Williams playing with Albert Renger-Patzsch, you know, The World is Beautiful. I have skepticism but also affection for that. But, for me, it’s chaotic inventory. I wouldn’t want to give it that churchy title, the archive.

MEADE: As T.J. Clark put it recently: We might want to think the world is all of a sudden all visual associative thinking, but behind our image sequences and image searches are still logos and the binding word. We still have slogans, contracts and marketing, the fine print.

ETHRIDGE: Absolutely. I guess it’s like a dirty little secret. Come to think of it, I don’t talk to anybody about it. So maybe I’m the only one. But even a painter who is with the object as it comes into being has to get rid of it, too. We’re having a show here; this shit’s for sale. Hopefully, you won’t see it again and you’ll get paid for it.

MEADE: Orphan my artwork, please!

ETHRIDGE: Right, looking for a good foster home.

MEADE: To go back to the show at Le Consortium: In terms of how you’re going to interrupt past bodies of work, you’re re-editing and redirecting.

ETHRIDGE: After a certain amount of time – it took a while – themes emerged and overlapped. Again, a kind of song structure. The first room is an introduction of themes that make sense as openers like they would in a book or in a magazine story, phrasing things. The second room is a coastal theme with Rockaway and Rockaway Redux, and the surf stuff that crops up in parts of Le Luxe, explicitly depicting the shore, the ocean, sharks, and even the Point Break poster alteration. And then it’s other locations by way of commissions, not the musical fugue but the psychic dementia effect of a fugue state where you wander off somewhere and wake up amnesiac. The whole layout is not supposed to close things down to a dominant reading, but there should be some legible confusion.

MEADE: The affective mood always brings competing elements of attention and identification in your work. It’s untethered so that readings can still be motivated.

ETHRIDGE: In some ways, I’ve taken this as the closest thing. Part of this suburban middle-class identity is an anonymity that you’re born into. So, it’s like, "What is my voice?" It might be partly anonymous and melancholy: "Gosh, maybe I don’t have any distinctive characteristics." But, it’s also: "Yeah, but you’re also free." So the images can assume other voices and use other voices. This is the displacement in the images.

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated