IN CONVERSATION WITH KEVIN MOORE AT THE SVA THEATRE
KEVIN MOORE: In the 10 years that I have known Roe’s work, I've seen a lot of different kinds of complexity in terms of image manipulation, and different kinds of subject matter and things that not that many people were doing then; it felt to me like a kind of fresh and confusing and experimental approach to making photography, especially at that time. And in terms of the books—Le Luxe and Sacrifice Your Body—they strike me as being much more complicated in some ways than the new one, Shelter Island. Thus, I feel like I’m seeing something that looks a bit like, maybe, a return to making beautiful, strong images that are edited concisely, perhaps in a more traditional way. Shelter Island doesn’t feel, to me, like it wanders too far out of bounds. It has a kind of concision to it, almost like a gallery show. Maybe you just want to start by talking about how you got from the seemingly more complex projects to this approach to Shelter Island?
ROE ETHRIDGE: I think that for about 15 years I was working in what I liked to call a fugal mode, or playing off both the notion of the musical fugue, which is this harmony, disharmony, multiple voices, washing over each other as well as a medical condition where you become amnesiac. When people go into a fugue state, they wind up doing these far flung travel things and come back to consciousness in another place and don’t really know why. And when I first moved to New York, I didn't have that in mind but I started getting commercial assignments and was also working on my shows at the same time. My mentor Philip-Lorca deCorcia told me, “You gotta find your voice, you know, use your voice—learn to use your voice.” My first thought was like, “Well, I have more than one voice, so...” Not necessarily schizophrenic, but it was that idea of, like, my identity wasn’t totally locked into one perspective. It was something where it could be something multiple.
KM: It seems like a very psychological and personal response to the state of photography, in a way, where it is still split between people who do commercial or editorial and people who make art.
RE: That’s true, but for me, I think it was hard to deny that my projects, which would start with what I thought was conceptual photography, where it had a thesis to start and then would illustrate that thesis with images. By the time I would get to the end of a project, I felt so tired and it felt false in a way, and yet, at the same time, I was shooting something like a beauty image for Allure magazine, and looking at this Polaroid from the shoot, and thinking, “This is the best picture I've taken in a month or two.” And then came this notion of a contamination or pollution of this pure conceptual project with the random effects of making yourself available for assignment photography. That’s when that started to happen, and the challenge was to simultaneously itemize this notion of the image while also not losing myself somehow, or keeping that voice thread throughout.
KM: Would you say, then, that you found the voice through going out of bounds with these expectations of the conceptual project? You seem to me to have an urge to pervert these expectations in a certain way.
RE: Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, it definitely was coming out of that fugal idea—counterpoint is key to that idea in terms of the musical form, and that just made so much sense to me as this artist, you know. Or, like I said, “I am a photographer living in New York in the 2000s,” and that's my truth or something.
KM: A lot of photographers—Taryn Simon as an example—are very tight with their concepts. Simon sets a topic, researches it, determines the format and she executes it. And I think you have this urge always to try to invent new forms, to throw in something confusing or unexpected. It's either a personal thing or maybe it is an art position—riding the line between something that’s comprehensible and incomprehensible.
RE: Well, I think it was important to me to try to unname the thing, and de-caption the image. In the case of Taryn’s work, the caption is just as important as the image, classification and terminology. In my case, I feel like the split personalities between the shooter, the person who authors the image and the editor. You know, from working in magazines and seeing how fucked up your shit can get by an editor. I thought, “Wow, that's a lot of power,” and it determines the reception of the image, and it's almost like it’s really half the voice. So, for me, there was something that I could play with: the power, the structure and also seeing how things juxtaposed suddenly created this meaning for me that was better than my intended thing. If I had a great idea, it often started to look worse and worse as these juxtapositions came together. There's the world—the model and the UPS drivers—the delivery system with a representation of the product.
KM: It’s a way of making new connections. I’m often struck by what's allowed in painting. I was at the Albert Oehlen exhibition at the New Museum and, reading the wall label, I was thinking to myself that the description could almost apply verbatim to your work—working in different vocabularies and all these things—but it struck me, though, that in photography there’s so little acceptance of that. There’s still this determination to make sure that a photographic series or what an artist is doing is comprehensible in some very traditional documentary-style way. Your work, I think, is very hard for some in the photographic community to understand because it really speaks more in a vocabulary or language of contemporary art, more generally, not specific to photography. Do you think about what artists in other mediums are doing?
RE: I never wanted to make movies but I did want to make paintings, but that seemed like it was going to take too long, and then it turned out it takes just as long to become a good photographer as a good painter. I think, in some ways, some part of it was that I loved the way painters used the edge of the frame, the full composition. In school I was doing things like sandpapering posters and you know, doing things that were ready-mades of sorts, and thinking that all the good pictures had already been taken, so now I have to deconstruct, take this thing apart. And then I started shooting four-by-five, and that challenge with the craft, with the medium, was inspiring. And then being able to bring these other things into the fold, and influences like, you know, Cindy Sherman, of course, you could say Jeff Koons and Richard Prince...
I want to make compositional images.
KM: I think what's interesting is that you take very good traditional pictures. You can take a picture that looks like a Man Ray or something that has that kind of force, but you're not treating it as a kind of precious thing and you don't obey those Modernist rules. You can be very experimental with the process and very irreverent about the print and about the way you combine prints and such.
Let’s talk about some specific pictures.
RE: The portrait of Louise Parker was for a magazine, but I cut her out very crudely, and dropped her portrait into a screenshot from the Google street view of the suburban home I grew up in Atlanta. That Google street view is the last image in the Sacrifice Your Body book, and so for me that was a way to tangentially connect that body of work with the next group of pictures, which was called Double Bill with Andy Harmon and special guest Louise Parker—I just wanted to make a TV variety show title, you know? For me this had a lot to do with my affection for my set and prop guy, Andy Harmon. It is actually a very seemingly conventional, almost art-historical image, and I also started bringing in these grid forms so that it was like a throwaway, like worse than an outtake. It wasn’t anything, but I also liked how I brought that Tiffany blue into the background and there was a language about it that was different and felt right. This is a picture at Andy’s studio. I went over and spent an afternoon taking pictures of whatever was there as another way to get to that multiple perspective.
RE: This is a picture inside my studio. I had just gotten this test print back and I started printing on dye-sublimation. It’s on a coated sheet of aluminum and the Epson transfer print comes reversed and gets laid down on the dye-sub aluminum. It has this kind of weird HD quality to it. It’s not like 3D, but it’s kind of cheesy and consumer, and it’s kind of wrong. But when I got this eight-by-ten sample, I just was so excited I took it ››
around the studio and made little still-lifes around it, so this is an example of finding the accident, letting the wrong thing be the right thing and being inspired and allowing things in to the body of work that are absolutely unintended. In this case, this particular piece was the first one that we made. My assistant Josef had his Photoshop document, he had every layer open, so it turned into this fucked up compressed thing on the screen that was just like, a jam there, and later on, we added these backplate images of the pickle and the salmon roe, bringing all this random stuff and juxtaposition into a single frame, but doing it exactly wrong.
KM: It has, to me, the feeling of surrealist collage, a very contemporary form of collage. Collage is making a comeback as I think we're so used to seeing collages on our computer screens, as we seem to always have like five or eight windows open at the same time.
RE: Right. I was standing in front of the print in the studio and looking at my iPhone. And I realized “Damn it, it’s the damn iPhone.” But there was something about that vernacular Internet brochure kind of design—I enjoy, you know, making bad design choices and there was something about hyperbolizing that vernacular that was appealing.
KM: It looks to me like a familiar object—a computer screen or an iPhone screen—but you’ve sent it into a fugue state. It has a kind of sensuality to it, and I think your choices are not simply to make the point intellectually but it’s more about this looking really interesting and amazing; it comes from a very visual place.
RE: But it’s also, for me, it’s also like a desperate place because I didn't want to un-include, edit out these pictures. I wanted to have something, but instead of it expanding out into the space, it was compressed into that screen, the, sort of frame that can contain.
KM: Back to Shelter Island. The cover has a strong pictorial quality that’s almost kitsch but at the same time beautiful.
RE: Kind of like an elevator button.
KM: Taking you to that good place.
RE: Or down to the bad place. Shelter Island was shot over the month of August on the actual Shelter Island. This was the third year we had rented this house—it’s one of those American kit houses, a Sears house from early-to-mid 20th century, that you ordered and it was delivered and it got put together on site. And the family that owns it has kids who are in their 20s and so the garage is full of objects from infancy through adolescence, all the summer things that you want. So it was like a prop house for my enjoyment, and a set as well.
KM: Maybe this is a place to emphasize that you’re making images that some critics have described, negatively, as glossy. They’re beautiful, but they have a slick advertising look to them, although you’re also absorbing something very personal and sentimental in terms of subject matter. Your process is very involved with people who matter to you and so even though the product is something that looks like advertising, the content of it is actually really traditional and personal in many ways. I was thinking about the fact that advertising photography used to look so different from the kinds of pictures that we all take on our iPhones and post on Instagram, and I think in some ways, we’ve all become kind of professional photographers, and at the same time, professional photography looks more ordinary or something. How do we salvage our identity within that? We’re all looking at our personal stuff in very slick, professional formats. Maybe you’re doing what a lot of us have to do in one way or another, where we retrieve something from the distribution and production of images that we’re all participating in all the time.
RE: Initially, I thought that this Shelter Island book was just going to be pictures of Nancy, my wife, and then it took a turn more into this narrative thread of end-of-summer malaise, but it’s also the family portrait—I love those Alex Katz paintings, you know? So it was kind of like those things mixing together and all that vacation heat and salt water. And while I wanted to make pictures of my family, I also wanted to find that “slick commercial.” In some ways, I feel like in every portrait in the book, the figure has a mask or some mediation, some way to distance you from them and not them your personal story, and it becomes a play between, “Is this a formal image or is this telling us something?”
KM: There’s a weird difficulty in making a picture that is basic—the de-skilled image.
RE: In my order of how images get made, I am reminded of the ubiquitous subjects I grew up with in Miami—the conch shell as subject—certain subjects like shells or flowers or sunsets are hard to take pictures of.
KM: James Welling took on the flower series as a challenge—how can you actually make a rigorous picture of flowers because it’s such a distracting, beautiful, kitsch subject?
RE: This is the one disruption inside of the Shelter Island sequence. It’s Pamela Anderson eating grapes that I shot for Gentlewoman and it was a picture that I really loved and wanted to use it, but couldn’t figure out why. Then this fall I was in London and I went to the Wallace Foundation, which is amazing. They have all this 18th and 19th-century French art, and they have these figurines that represent the seasons, and there’s a figurine eating a grape, and I realized I inadvertently referenced that picture, but it works so perfectly with Pamela as the Tool Time kind of a girl, but also beckoning in the harvest season and the end of summer. It’s a little hard to tell that it’s her because you don't see that frontal view, but I just really love that, her sort of slightly disrupting instead of [furthering the narrative].
KM: It’s a kind of a fantasy of a bounty in the middle of what I think is otherwise a kind of melancholy series. As you proceed through the pictures, it’s that fading of summer, the fleetingness of it. The picture of dried flowers—
RE: And empty Coke bottles. This is the kind of stuff that’s in this house, and I’d been looking at it for three summers. It was like with the weeds that I was saying, there’s something that I felt I really needed to apprehend—images of things that were close at hand, and that didn’t involve ambition. So the shell, the flowers, the Coke bottles, the empty vessels, these kind of thing just kept coming back.
KM: Something you and I talk about sometimes is the way we both want to evade the existing categories, or avoid to using the word archive, for example. We call your work “inventory.” If we were jumping onto this art-jargon bandwagon, we would be sitting here talking about archive and index and things like that.
RE: It made so much sense to me because of the relationship with commerce that photography has and I have as a photographer, and the way these images were being deployed.
KM: Inventory is dynamic in a way that an archive isn’t. An archive is boxed up.
RE: Well, inventory is The Gap. And an archive is like, you know, art school, and, you know, German things, and The Bechers.
KM: Should we answer some questions from the