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Roe Ethridge on Getting It Exactly Wrong

In dizzying sequences, the irreverent photographer embraces risk and failure.

By David Campany

Roe Ethridge, Louise, 2011
© and courtesy the artist

Roe Ethridge’s approach to editing and sequencing his work in book form has almost become synonymous with a particularly contemporary mode of picture organization. He embraces the nonnarrative and the nonsequitur, eschewing traditional definitions of genre and series-making in favor of unlikely and inexplicable connections between images across the pages.

David Campany: I get the impression that you’ve come to be known as much for the way you set up relations between your images, in your books and exhibitions, as the images themselves. Whatever it is your work communicates, or suggests, emerges in the associations and resonances between quite different kinds of photographs. From how early on in your development were you thinking about the way images might play off each other?

Roe Ethridge: It was early on. In 1999 I finished a project that was very typological. It was pictures of trees on highway medians. I loved German objective photography when I was in school and it felt like the way to do the American road story through my interpretation of objective photography. Simultaneously, I had just moved to NYC and had started shooting commercially. I had a few outtakes from a beauty story I did for Allure in the studio while trying to make “tough, smart, conceptual” photography. There was no denying that the outtake was as good or better than anything I intentionally made as an “artist.” I realized that the cross-pollution of images from an art practice and an applied practice was something that was more true than being a “good” photographer. Russell Haswell put me in the MoMA PS1 Greater New York show in 2000 with that outtake of a beauty model and an image of a UPS/mail store. That was the first public showing of that approach.

Roe Ethridge, Screenshot of Point Break (plus), 2011, from the book Le Luxe
© and courtesy the artist

Campany: I agree about the close relation between so-called “art” photography and applied or commercial photography. I enjoy those books from the 1920s that tried to show these connections. Roh and Tschichold’s Photo-Eye (Akademischer Verlag Dr. Fritz Wedekind & Co., 1929), Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (Albert Langen Verlag, 1925). Back then there was a broad sense that one should try to make good photography wherever in the culture one could, and the art part would take care of itself. That’s easier to accept in hindsight, but when practitioners like you do it in the present it always feels like a provocation, or a transgression, as if on some level these diverse image forms shouldn’t be seen together. Over the years I can tell your editing has become incredibly nuanced, but is there still a sense of provocation or transgression, either for you, or as something you’re bearing in mind for your audience?

Ethridge: I know there’s a word for when influence skips a generation but I can never remember it.

For me it was the work of Paul Outerbridge that really got me excited, but I also had this guilty pleasure of Stieglitz and other early Pictorialist images. For some reason, what pops into my mind right now is Outerbridge’s image Ide Collararar [1922], versus Stieglitz’s Spiritual America [1923]. Funny how they speak to each other.

I definitely think about the audience’s reception of the sequence, but I first think of what I want to see and how it provokes something for me. I like the idea that a layout is like the whole musical score and how notes or tunings or progressions are correlatives of color, composition, or subject. So for me those considerations are understood going into a sequence. I’m not sure if I think about it as provocative, or transgressive, but I often feel that if the sequence doesn’t give me a bit of nausea I’m probably not doing it right.

Roe Ethridge, I Love NY Bag, 2011
© and courtesy the artist

Campany: What do you mean by nausea? And can you give an example in your own work?

Ethridge: Feeling sick. Like my using the Mistral font that says “Sacrifice Your Body” over an image of a skeleton wearing a Florida State Seminoles hat preceded by an image of Gisele in a bathtub and followed by an image of carnations, tulips, and roses laid on a mirror. It’s all “right” in its wrongness. Maybe “nausea” is a substitute for Warhol’s quote about getting a painting “exactly wrong.”

Campany: For this issue of The PhotoBook Review, I put a call out for people to send me images of their editing process. Most sent pictures of printed images laid out over floors. At first you sent me a JPEG of the logo for InDesign. Then you sent a number of screenshots of your books in progress. So I presume you do your book editing on-screen. Do you do any editing with actual prints, or is it all done on the computer? Does the screen give you a better understanding of how your photographs work? I guess they are pure and immaterial images on-screen.

A lot of your books feel like elaborate brochures for imaginary and maybe neurotic corporations. You like to push glossy lifestyle imagery into awkwardness, or place it next to something abject or forlorn. In this the books often feel like reedits of America’s self-image. Taking familiar things but shuffling the order, so that the fantasy begins to question itself, unraveling before one’s eye. I like the idea that someone looking at these books in fifty years could actually get quite a good sense of how messed up society was. Or maybe things will be way worse in fifty years and your books will seem like fond remembrances!

Ethridge: I made a few books by hand but they were one-offs or zines or an artist book. I remember someone trying to explain how to use QuarkXPress and it was like unintelligible to me. However, working in the magazine world and seeing the way a magazine came together on-screen had me chomping at the bit. When I started using InDesign it was fairly intuitive and then I was off to the races. I think it was like 2003, and I have never sequenced a book or story any other way since then.

I feel like it goes back to the notion of writing the whole musical score. I can see the images as thumbnails, almost like they are equivalent to notes in a score. Then I can bring the image forward and see it in direct relation to its page left, page right, verso, etc. I also love the ability to use the margin as a place stacked with failed attempts. Sometimes the margin is where I find combinations of images I would not have predicted and they wind up sequenced in the final book.

Roe Ethridge, Leelee, 2011
© and courtesy the artist

Campany: I think of many of your images almost as Readymades, like they already existed somewhere and you happened to be the one to find them. And then, when you arrange them, it often feels as if you’re showing us things you’ve found. Does this make sense?

Ethridge: I love what you are saying about the found object and the Readymade. I think that is such a big part of my education and earliest affections for art. My two big early influences were Lee Friedlander and Andy Warhol.

Campany: Photography has such a complicated relation to chance. It’s always there but it can be destabilizing unless you can figure out your relation to it and make it work for you. Just coming back to the Readymade, I guess Duchamp’s idea of nominating an object as a work of art is a pretty radical act of editing. Picking something out from the continuum, isolating it in a way that makes it strange and compelling.

Ethridge: Absolutely. Selection is editing. In a way it’s the opposite of chance. All intention. I used to think of myself as a kind of stock photographer. Making an inventory of images from which I would select.

Roe Ethridge, Sand Pit #3, 2006
© and courtesy the artist

Campany: Yes, few of your images seem chancy, although maybe never entirely conscious. Chance comes into the equation through the putting together of the different images.

Ethridge: Right. A good accident is better than a bad intention!

David Campany is a curator and writer based in London.

Read more from The PhotoBook Review Issue 015 or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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