Roe Ethridge

INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON

Roe Ethridge is one of my top five favorite photographers that are working today. At first glance, his art is often deceptively straightforward. An image of a pigeon in mid-flight, a buxom nude sipping from a bottle of Coke, ripe oranges on the tree…

But, as with the creeper variety of marijuana, Roe’s photos have an extended-release strangeness to them. Subtly implied narratives, depths, and meanings start to rise out of the work the longer that you look at it. Roe’s work is more like short, transcendent fiction than simple photography.

Jesse Pearson: One thing I’ve always wondered about your work is how you go about choosing subjects.
Roe Ethridge:
I have a sort of checklist of themes that I’m working on, although sometimes I just go out and take pictures and the reason for using the picture in a book project or a show becomes obvious long after it was shot. Sometimes it takes a couple years before the image makes sense to me—at least this has happened a lot in the last couple years. Overall I usually come back to a position where I feel like I work in the service of the image—or the image service industry—depending on how the day is going.

I like that—the image service industry. Like a photographic janitor. Does reading inspire you?
Well, I don’t read a lot of novels and I finish even less. Out of those that I’ve recently finished I loved the last three Michel Houellebecq and some stuff by John Haskell. Both get at the lonesomeness of humans in our shitty little moment. But I think it has more to do with the feeling of dread they build up. It kind of sticks to you. I get something out of that feeling. It’s like the fugue state.

Ah, the F word.
Yeah. The first time I read the word fugue was in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman. In the book he’s talking about the fugue as a mental state but as you probably know it’s also a compositional structure in classical music. Bach was the best fugue maker. The idea of this thing that is both a bad mental state and a compositional form has been a long-term interest, inspiration, and method for me in my work.

It’s funny that you get something out of dread and the fugue because to me your work always has a sense of comfort, warmth, and all-is-right-with-the-world-ness. I totally missed the point!
Maybe it’s just that those authors know how to write about the world and not make it totally obvious that they do.

And maybe it’s less a feeling of warmth I get from your work and more a sense of wonderment. I can’t believe I just said that word. But I don’t mean it in the magical wizard sense. I mean it more in a, “What is this thing I am looking at and taking a photograph of” sort of a way. Like we’re seeing you try to figure things out by photographing them.
Well, do you find my Santa pictures comforting?

Maybe not those. Those live on the border between “hilarious” and “terrifying.” But seriously, I’m sorry I said “wonderment.”
That’s OK. But yeah, I do think the word “wonder” has a bit of lousy baggage.

But you know what I mean, right?
I think so. I know that I’m interested in the capacity for an image to charge something ordinary, or to present something fucked-up in a straightforward, “objective” way. A seedless watermelon on the one hand and a hammerhead shark on the other.

I’ve watched you at work on a fair amount of shoots now, and the process of taking the pictures seems very deliberate and considered.
But I spend way more time looking at the picture of the thing than the thing itself when I’m photographing it. Maybe that’s why I constantly return to the same subjects and themes. After I got out of school I felt like I needed to have clearly directed projects. Like, “Here’s the idea or thesis or whatever and here are the thirty examples of what I was saying in the thesis.” At the time I was obsessed with German typological stuff. Jeff Wall and Christopher Williams were looking to me like the smartest photographers in the history of mankind. And yes, this was in the 1990s.

Very 90s, but not necessarily a bad thing.
At some point I realized that I was bored by projects and that singularity was a stretch. I wanted to start keeping the groups of pictures small, and then I brought the small groups together in the edits. At the same time I had just moved to New York and I was doing pictures for friends’ album covers, like Andrew WK and Fischerspooner, and doing commercial stuff for a weird array of clients like Allure and the Times. These seemed to me like one-offs that were creating a random archive, like a counterpoint to whatever my own “self-assignments” were.

Why did you want to photograph the moon?
I liked the moon as a subject for so many reasons. One was the war; one was because it’s really old. I also liked that to get the shot I had to delve into some serious specialized amateur shit. It turns out a lot of people are taking the same picture every night. I used an 8-inch telescope with a medium format camera. I had to get a custom lens adapter made by this guy somewhere in the middle of Queens. Then I shot the photos from my roof in Williamsburg.

Wait, how was the war connected to the moon as a subject?
I was shooting the moon at the same time as the build up for the invasion in ‘03, and I was reading articles about the Army waiting for the full moon so they could go in at night.

A lot of your photos seem to explore suburbia and suburban life. Can you tell me a little about that? What do you want to get at or uncover while photographing the sprawl?
I guess I’m fascinated by the suburbs because I grew up there.

There’s a big cliché in books and movies that deal with suburbia. It’s so often about the “seedy underbelly that lurks beneath.” That isn’t what you’re doing though.
Yeah, it’s not so much the underbelly but the confrontational blankness of suburbia that blows me away. Currently it seems to be more a devouring blankness. I’m actually talking to you from my parents’ renovated living room. I’m down here visiting them now. At least they got wireless in the house so I don’t need to go down to Starbucks to check my email later.

Oh that’s too bad, because isn’t that Starbucks where you met the Santa from your photos?
Yes. I met Santa Dan at the Starbucks here in Dunwoody Village in suburban Atlanta. It was December 26th and it was, obviously, his first day off in a while. I was working on a project about suburban stuff and he seemed to fit the bill. I made a deal with him that I’d do new head shots for him if I could use the pictures for my project. It turned out I couldn’t use them until long afterwards because I thought they were too frightening or sad or something. Sometimes it takes a while.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE VICE PHOTO BOOK