Roe Ethridge’s photographs beckon the viewer into their layers. Each image—and its subtle misalignments—demands a second, and likely a third look. The photographer’s hallmark irony is ever-present, quietly disrupting the visual harmony. “When I am shooting, I start with an intention,” he tells CR MEN. “But if I see something in my periphery, a thing on the edge that seems interesting or better, I am always willing to follow that.”
More than two decades ago, Ethridge studied photography at the Atlanta College of Art, and then traded his southern roots in Miami and Atlanta for his base since in New York City. His photography is beloved by museums and magazines alike—including CR—and it crosses boundaries so seamlessly that the fashion set, as well as Goldman Sachs, has decreed his vantage as highly in-demand. Whether high fashion editorials, low culture still lifes, or open-ended landscapes, Ethridge’s photography offers a window into a moment, though it is impossible to say exactly whose or which moment that is. In the blank space between personal memories and collective nostalgia, the photos bring his everyman aesthetic to light. Within these images, he always manages a sly wink—an unexpected element that perfectly interrupts the serenity.
Here, Ethridge speaks with CR MEN about his creative journey as an artist, how his images link conventions and conceptual twists, and why his photography is at its best when it is a little fucked up.
Your latest exhibition, Old Fruit collects 20 years of your earlier photography. How has your work developed over the course of your practice?
“The show mainly looks at the years from 1999 to 2003. It is a quasi-historical show with a couple of exceptions. When I look back, I see threads that connect to the work now. I also see and flash back to the feeling of not being sure if it was okay to make different kinds of pictures. I had a sense of—this is not right, but it’s what I need to do as a way out of thesis or conceptual photography.
There were disparate sources of influence: In school, I studied Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherry Levine. I fell hard for German objective photography and others like Christopher Williams, Stephen Shore, and Walker Evans. I loved the problem of New York photography and the schism between [Alfred] Stieglitz and the Clarence White school. That’s when I discovered Outerbridge as a kind of model for me. These all acted on my practice in some way specific to photography, but they also opened things up into the fugue, and the idea of harmonizing and disharmonizing multiple voices. Over time, I felt like this was something I could do in my photography.”
You have said that you always seek elements that are askew in your images. How do you know when this “off” aspect is just right?
“My singular goal is for it to be a little fucked up. You have a rhythm going and you could leave it there, or you introduce a new voice, a new sound, a new chord, or the perfect distortion. I could trace that back to being an art student in early ’90s. It was a really exciting time after the ’80s market crash, and there was a freedom from expectations of art as commerce. At the same time, it was a good moment for photography. Also, there was installation art and German objective photography, which were really good at taking up space. At first, I didn’t want to make anything bigger than what could fit in my station wagon. But that time made it possible to think about scale. As a young artist, I felt like—‘Is this even allowed?’ But it was, it was a really free moment.”
Your aesthetic intertwines commercial and fine art elements so deeply that it can be difficult to distinguish one arena of your work from another. How do you create this alchemy in your photographs?
“I feel like part of my job is to find out if I can make my picture. Whether it is fashion or still life with a tuna can and a lemon, that is the obstacle and the challenge—to get your voice into it, or to make your voice sound like other voices within it. There are different modes of looking and responding that are closer to intuitive than strategic or driven by an ideology. There is a type of visual satisfaction that I look for in combining the parts of an image. For a fashion story, there is a very different approach to the edit versus a longer ‘art’ project with elements that come in over time. A luxury of this longer duration approach as an artist is that things made for a magazine story or commission are available to self-appropriate. Images can be made completely new with a new intention or context.”
You have photographed campaigns for Balenciaga, Kenzo, and Sportmax, as well as numerous editorials for major magazines. What do you find most interesting about fashion photography?
“There is something thrilling about doing a fashion shoot. It’s kind of mercenary. You meet at the agreed time and place. It is kind of like a band performing, there are no take-backs. It all happens in one day. And as they say, it is really good work if you can get it. There is a collaborative spirit, and I often learn something new, maybe from a stylist or creative assistant or someone I may not meet on another type of assignment. We discover something and hopefully we made something new together. You can start with the feeling of an intention, but I love it when it becomes something even better than I had in mind.”
Chanel objects are a prominent theme in your work, including a recent photo shoot of Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘90s archives. What is the fascination and symbolism of Chanel within your photos?
“I trace it back to my mom’s tiny bottle of Chanel N°5. It was in the beauty area of her room with other perfumes and costume jewelry. That Chanel bottle felt like the most valuable thing in the house. It meant something that was more than financial value. There was this mythic quality about it, an exotic, powerful, and precious association. And working with someone like Carine on the Chanel archives was a really special collaboration. She is a master at what she does and seeing her way of looking at things was really gratifying as a photographer.”
How has your photography changed in the present era of your work?
“One difference is that until about 2010, I was shooting in large format film. That work and the way you shoot—if you are under a dark cloth, looking at ground glass upside down and backwards—you see things different compositionally. I am probably looser and more intuitive because things happen so much faster in digital and I need to make quick decisions about where things go. I am also more prolific now. I was very self-conscious about what I put out into the world initially. A lot of times, I was very spare because I wanted to be seen as a smart artist. At some point, the dam broke and I couldn’t worry about that. I had to let the chips fall where they may, which came with experience and getting older.”
Your images are often personal, but they are presented with a collective nostalgia and an ambiguous sentiment. What feelings would you like your work to convey and evoke?
“When I was younger I used to think if it doesn’t make me feel a little nauseous, then I am probably not doing it right. It doesn’t feel that way as much now, but it did for a long time. The feeling was basically about taking risks and going outside of my comfort zone in my work. Maybe it was because I knew I had to do it, or maybe I felt that the discomfort was the way it needed to be to get it right…I remember feeling like I didn’t want to upset the photography world. It’s an interesting moment now because the leveling platform of social media has put us all in the same room. I am still interested in the result of adolescent nostalgia; everyman and relatable nostalgias make sense to me. And because I am making images to be seen and read and listened to, there is the idea that they will make sense to other people, too. Mostly, I just want to look for, and find, ways to continue to be surprised.”
Roe Ethridge: Old Fruit is now open through April 18, 2020 at Gagosian New York located at 976 Madison Avenue.END
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