All systems go: the art of Roe Ethridge

All systems go: the art of Roe EthridgeNext model Sabrina, all perfect skin and luscious lips as luminous as the glossy surface of her photograph. "Party Til You Puke" rocker Andrew Wilkes-Krier, bloodied and haloed like some contemporary Antichrist. UPS deliveryman Fergus Rave perched on the back of his truck. A postcard-perfect moonlit forest. A young pine tree. Leigh Yeager. A holiday home in the Catskills. A cable TV repairman on the job.

Looking for the ties that connect the diverse photography of young American artist Roe Ethridge is a little like groping for Ariadne's mythical thread--until one understands that the seeking is essentially its point. As technically adept as a commercial photographer yet as thoughtful as a Conceptualist about photography's role and meaning in the modern world, Ethridge believes the ubiquity of the photograph and the instantaneity of its transmission and reception in this age of increasing "ecstatic communication" is to be embraced rather than mourned. In his work there appears no cause and no ending, no discrimination between editorial and art, between document and construct, between technology and affect. "The Bow" was the title of his 2002 solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, and the image could serve as the leitmotiv of Ethridge's work: the world as a ribbon perpetually folding back on itself, in which a web of descriptions and digressions radiate out from every object and where the photographer's contribution is to bind together in provisional yet meaningful relation those--as Robert Bresson expressed it--"various bits of reality caught."

After earning a BFA at the Atlanta College of Art, where, like so many photography students in the '90s, he fell under the sway of the Dusseldorf school, Ethridge tried out a systematic approach, the cold, observational logic of which seemed to make sense to a young photographer growing up in the rational, corporate environment of a town like Atlanta. A series of carefully described pictures of grassy patches next to highways--near freeway exit ramps and on medians--ensued, in which a Becher-style methodology was married to New Topographic understatement. But the impulse to shape the world to a predetermined photographic order, a form of stable compactness, came to feel inadequate to him, in the face of the multiplicity of the photographable, the fluidity of the medium, the rapid rhythms of contemporary life, and the changing sphere of '90s photography. The desire grew to rattle the discipline, to "get the typologies wrong," as he says, to release himself into a more hyperactive form of production, which, without forsaking the concrete descriptive capabilities of photography, could also embrace its aleatory or involuntary possibilities--the natural "serendipity" of the medium, he calls it. "I like to keep the series short and linked," he says. "And then there are these one-offs--travel pictures, pictures from a job, pictures of food--that aren't part of a series but which become their own group."

First pursuing photography as an artistic practice and only later as a profession (his first commercial assignments came in 1998 in New York, where he's now based), Ethridge reversed the career development of his more established contemporaries Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller. Like them, however, he incorporates images born from a commercial context into his art, to the point where the boundary between high and low forms becomes increasingly diffuse and increasingly irrelevant. Art photographers have long had a relationship with commercial practice, but where the pattern is usually to underplay the non-art roots of their work in order to release it more fully into art, Ethridge is unusual in his enthusiasm for photography's double life, which distinguishes it from painting or sculpture. "New York is the Hollywood of print publishing," he says. "The status of photography is different. I see myself on both sides; there's a mutual attraction. Everything seems to end up in a magazine sooner or later." He's a throwback, perhaps, to an earlier history, particularly the decades of the 1920s and '30s, when "avant-garde artist" and "commercial photographer" were not viewed as incompatible positions, when figures like Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy, Paul Outerbridge, and Man Ray moved between art and advertising with equanimity and when avant-garde photography was as much formed by the languages and technological developments of the new commercial media as it was reflective on them. Ethridge, in keeping with the times, hesitates to make any avant-gardist claims for his photography, and while his experience in the commercial world injects his work with the slick of technical modernity, the affiliation is more important for him as a conceptual maneuver than as a formal one. Again, he apprehends the promiscuity and the elasticity of photography: its enviable ability to shift contexts without losing its legibility. He speaks of "the feeling of slippage in my work, the plastic capability of the image. It's the same image whether it's illustrating a text or has a caption, on the walls or on a bus stop. I like the fact that photography is ubiquitous and polymorphic, that it can be for the specialist or the dilettante or sometimes both at the same time." Hence, there is no contradiction in Ethridge's dramatic portrait of Andrew WK existing simultaneously as an album cover and an artwork, or in the evolution of an editorial assignment for the New York Times Magazine (to photograph the furniture designer Roy McMakin at work) into a forthcoming book, The Jones's, a long photo-essay on interior space and the American vernacular.

If commercial photography is about the stimulation of desire in the service of consumption, then Ethridge plays with this dynamic in two seemingly unrelated series: a group of effortlessly beautiful pastoral landscapes made in upstate New York, which he says relates more to the imagery of covetable real estate than traditions of the Romantic or picturesque, and a sequence of portraits of young models (2000-2001). No system embodies the capitalist logic of perpetual cycles of novelty and obsolescence as much as the fashion industry, and Ethridge's stream of impossibly gorgeous pubescent faces captures the rapaciousness of the business's requirement for "new faces" while hinting at the models' own rapturous seduction of the camera in pursuit of a successful career. "What I was interested in was a kind of in-betweenness--in-between desires, ours and theirs, Lolita-ish." The narrative of seduction in Nabokov's novel twists and turns around the fact that while Humbert Humbert attempts to debauch Lolita, she manipulates him. And Lolita, who adores candy bars and jukeboxes, is a "disgustingly conventional little girl," Humbert realizes, even as he imagines her to be a seductive nymphet. The fashion photograph, too, with its manufactured femininities and faked perfections, manipulates us while we feverishly consume its spectacle. Ethridge's portraits are, cleverly, perfect and imperfect at the same time, in a way that makes us aware of the moment of our own seduction. These girls, with their dewy eyes, immaculate complexions, and fixed smiles, are unreal to the point of being Stepfordian, and yet closer inspection reveals that the perfect surface is flawed--a blob of congealed mascara, a smear of lip gloss, a slightly bloodshot eye. Fantasy subsides, and you're left looking at a teenager in a mask.