This interview took place on the morning of January 21, 2011, in Roe Ethridge’s Brooklyn studio. What follows is an edited version of that dialogue. The photograph under discussion, Studio with Red Bag (2009), was featured in New Photography 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Matthew Porter: There’s a famous quote of yours about wanting to “get the typologies wrong.” Clearly you were well versed in the dominant typological photographic style—the systematic documentation of a chosen subject repeated across a series. What happened that led you away from this practice in the late 1990s, and from the “Neutral Territory” project you had been working on?
Roe Ethridge: “Neutral Territory” was constructed in what I thought was a conceptual or psychological way. There was a thesis. There was an outline that determined how many pictures there would be, and an idea of how many pictures would be in the project. At that time, I had just moved to New York City. “Neutral Territory” takes place in between Atlanta and New York. I drove back and forth and photographed the trees and flora of the interstate. By the end, I was so sick of the project, sick of my thinking about it. At the same time, I started doing commercial photography and finding that I was more excited or intrigued by this weird, unexpected image that would result from something like a beauty assignment. Commissioned projects freed me from the prescribed process. Suddenly it felt like that was where the real pictures were happening, and everything else was about trying to be a good boy and do the right thing.
MP: I don’t think there are many people who would consider their commercial assignments to be liberating.
RE: I have to say—especially early on, for the first eight years of doing it—that it cost me days of my life, and it was often an extreme waste of time. But what kept it vital was that engagement with something outside a known, named place. It felt like the outtakes that could come out of this were greater than the assignment itself, or the project.
MP: Was there something else you were looking at that also influenced or informed that?
RE: I’d have to give credit to [photographer] Ron Jude, and to the Andy Warhol quote “You have to do it exactly wrong.” Ron was sort of a mentor. I remember I did a beauty assignment for Allure, and at the time Ron was living in New York. We got together, and he was looking at the Polaroids, and there was one that he said was a great picture. I couldn’t disagree. I also couldn’t have predicted, doing a story about how to put lipstick on a model, that the model would show up with chapped lips. Of course it was all retouched for the magazine, but for me I thought about the engagement between myself and the model, the model and the camera, and the context of beauty photography, and what it meant.
It was as if I was creating an inventory that I could appropriate. I think that was something I was always jealous about with John Szarkowski’s relationship with William Eggleston. I had the privilege of looking through an unedited box of Eggleston eight-by-tens from The Democratic Forest (1989), and there’s a lot of pictures that aren’t in the book. I realized that this act of selection is our charge; taking pictures is hard, but picking the right one is even harder. Doing that work, creating that inventory, was for me not unlike the tradition that spans from Duchamp to Richard Prince. A sort of homemade readymade.
MP: The word ubiquitous comes up a lot when people write about your work. This is because you intentionally produce images that simultaneously ossify and subvert our notions of familiar photographic genres and subject matter. I’m thinking specifically of the moons, the pigeons, and more recently the sunsets. And yet your interest in both ubiquitous subject matter and style seems to be waning—there hasn’t been a celestial picture or a pigeon or something that stems from standard commercial photography in years. This picture that we’re going to talk about, Studio with Red Bag—it doesn’t look like anything else. There are ubiquitous things depicted in the picture, like decorative photographs and photography equipment, but it’s hardly a ubiquitous image itself.
RE: Right, this thing is not going to end up in a Balenciaga ad.
MP: There’s no other use for this picture. It only serves to show us the things you want to show us.
RE: Maybe it’s also turned into a more comfortable use of themes for me. I really have been working on this idea of the studio. The recent show at Gladstone Gallery, in 2009, was called “Sunset Studio.” I’ve been enjoying this idea that the studio is not just my studio here, but Pier 59, or the computer, or the scanner. I’ve been identifying these locations within the studio, and the apparatus within the studio: the screen with the screen shot, the tripod with the serial number on it. Initially I was shooting the red bag—the bag has been a thread throughout the years. This bag had a hard drive in it that fried on me in 2004. It had everything on it so I sent it to New Jersey for recovery and it came back in this red bag in parts, and so it just stayed in the bag. And you would never know what had been in that bag.
MP: You’re clearly very skilled at using a 4 x 5 view camera. Studio with Red Bag is, you claim, one of the last pictures you made with the view camera—sort of an analog swan song. It exhibits your talent for lining things up and putting everything in its right place. The picture is composed of a number of seemingly chaotic planes, yet after analysis they resolve into an ordered stacking, and everything seems to be in its perfect place. There doesn’t seem to be anything left to serendipity. I even imagine you moving the red bag around until you found the right spot for it.
RE: Not quite. I beg to differ. The light leak, for instance. At the time it seemed counterintuitive. I was trying to depict the scene, and kept putting the light lower. Lower, lower, lower. That shifted everything.
MP: But that doesn’t sound like serendipity.
RE: It’s like True Grit—it’s a moment of grace. Maybe not serendipitous, just pure grace. And luck. Grace doesn’t come because you deserve it.
MP: But you put together such a strong foundation. The success of the light leak is predicated on the strength of the rest of the planned picture.
RE: Luck is a skill, I guess. Compositionally, I did notice the rectangular shapes, and the structure lines of the interior. The sailboat, the lens, the reflector, the spot grid—those were there. I did nudge them a little, but it was more about positioning the camera than moving things in the picture. There’s a light stand in front of a light that’s creating a shadow. I could’ve taken that out. Maybe I should have. I hate the IKEA cabinet. I’d like to get it out of the studio, but I wouldn’t take it out of the picture.
MP: When you mentioned True Grit, I thought you were going to use Jeff Bridges's line: “That didn’t pan out.”
RE: Right. I can’t say for sure that this is the last 4 x 5 picture, but when I’m in the studio now, shooting something, I find that my patience has worn out, and I just want to reach for the Mark II camera. The picture in MoMA of the model, Debora Muller with Tripod (2008), was actually from a test day that my agent set up. It was very much the same way I used to shoot model portraits. It’s like street photography—you get all of the components together, then go to work, but it doesn’t always happen, and the picture doesn’t always occur. The art part didn’t happen. I think for me, that picture anecdotally represents the first time I went off the tripod. It was because the girl didn’t speak English, and I was trying to get her to do things. I took the camera off of the tripod and put the tripod under her arm, and there it was.
For me, Debora Muller depicts a certain amount of freedom. It’s kind of like quitting smoking. There’s something I’ll miss; it’s not a totally happy liberation. Also, with analog, the chemistry is set. You can only do incremental things, like push the film a stop or control a few points of magenta. It doesn’t feel like an act of refusal so much, but we live in an accelerated time. When I’m in the studio shooting commercially, it’s almost always with the Mark II or the Hasselblad tethered to a tech guy with two monitors. Everybody except the model and the photographer is looking at the screen, so suddenly you have a consensus situation. I don’t drop off the film and decide what work prints to show. We’re all deciding now. It’s weird, it’s very different. In some ways it’s thrilling.
MP: Will you still be hanging pictures on the wall for the foreseeable future?
RE: Yes. There was some ceremony for me in doing the MoMA New Photography show. There was a feeling in it for me of coming to the end of a way of working. The studio picture was placed in the right-hand corner of the gallery, emphasizing the lattice in the right-hand corner of the image. If you looked at the pictures from left to right, it was the last one, looping you back to the studio.
MP: Bennett Simpson, in the catalogue for “County Line," your 2005 show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, talks about a picture of your studio that you edited out of the show. You were working from a list: I need a picture of a pig, I need a picture of a mall sign. You compiled a list and then shot everything on the list. But what was overtaking that, and maybe this was always present, was a personal association with the images. You made, for example, pictures of water upstate where you wished you could buy property. Maybe people are slow to pick up on that because the writing on your work still focuses on the commercial use of images, but it’s been personal for a while. There’s also this other thing happening: There used to have to be a traditional foundation for the pictures you’re making, now there doesn’t have to be. If you want to photograph lenses and bags in your studio, you just do it, and there doesn’t need to be any precedent for it.
RE: I don’t want to disagree, but I don’t think that’s completely true. For Studio, two associations were made while setting up the shot. First of all, we were setting up a still life to shoot the red bag. We did, and it’s a nice still life of the bag, but it turned into one of those things where the set became as interesting as the subject. One of the two things in it I was thinking about was a couple of Irving Penn still lifes of a tabletop pushed up against a wall. It looks like it’s supposed to be shot frontally, but he swings around and shoots it from the side. Also, something about the studio interior—it’s a motif for painters. I think of Matisse in particular. Like you’re saying, there was a connection for me with something historical.
MP: The picture makes reference to that in a very subtle way.
RE: Yeah, I didn’t want it to be pastiche or for it to corner itself. I wanted it to be open and vulnerable, not an impenetrable success story. Maybe the reason why it works is because it fails as a sort of representational, large-format formal study. As a 4 x 5 picture goes, this one’s fucked up.
MP: What’s the failure in this picture?
RE: The light leak.
MP: It seems as though you want to deny yourself the perfect picture. Maybe we could talk again about the way that picture is made. Aside from Irving Penn and Paul Outerbridge, I always thought that the Thomas Ruff interiors most inform the way you put pictures together. They’re vertical, and there weren’t a lot of vertical interiors in the ’90s.
RE: I met Ruff in Atlanta. He came to the Goethe-Institut and did a talk, and it was totally refreshing. When he was showing the night-sky “Star” pictures, he said, “I want to be an astronaut,” and we thought, “Does he mean astronomer?” This was around 1991. I thought he be would be all theory and Teutonic, and he wasn’t. The work he showed had an effect on me, and we became pen pals for a few years, and he sent me a few catalogues. One of them was a traveling kunsthalle show that had four bodies of work, and I really responded to the way it was sequenced. It set up this idea of sequencing for me—the idea that it would play such a crucial role in my work. Of course there’s the bible of sequencing, Michael Schmidt’s U-ni-ty (1996). If you look at that, it’s so enthusiastic about its subject, but the pictures are so fucking dour. The work is ambivalent; he doesn’t lead you to any conclusion. He’s invested personally, and he didn’t go to school for photography. He was a policeman. There’s something in that amateur enthusiasm that you can’t get or can’t pretend to be. That may be why I was so attracted to commercial photography—I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t trained as an applied photographer, I was trained to be an artist.
MP: By the time I met you in 2005, I think you were pretty comfortable doing commercial work. I remember your shoots being exciting, because my friends and I always talked about commercial work pejoratively. The feedback loop worked counterclockwise—the commercial work informed the artwork.
RE: I was thinking about that yesterday because I used to play in bands in the ’90s, and there were at least three songs in every set that ended in screaming feedback with digital delay. So I was playing guitar in the studio yesterday and just played with feedback, and I came back to my computer and thought about feedback. It’s all feedback. That kind of noise—what feedback is—it points toward the sublime. It’s horrifying and beautiful and you don’t know how to start it or end it. In feedback I found a model for naming what I was doing, and I recently fessed up to the fugue. There’s something about the fugue and feedback.
MP: I thought fugue was always your word.
RE: I know, I say “recently,” but when I first read the word in a Walker Percy novel, that was 2000, and I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t know exactly what it was.
Fugue state, as I use it, is characterized as a person going into an amnesiac state. They’re still going about life, they’re moving through the world, and they don’t really know what they’re doing or remember it. It usually involves travel or adventures of some kind, and then you sort of come to. Do you remember a couple of years ago, a woman was jogging near Riverside Park and went into a fugue state and was picked up in the harbor three days later, sunburned and holding onto a log? She had no recollection of what had happened. To me, those twin definitions of fugue were intriguing.
MP: The other definition being the musical form that’s actually very deliberate?
RE: Yes. Where there are overlapping voices. A Bach fugue is a series of small, short pieces, like two keyboards playing overlapping harmonies. It’s very structural: for three minutes something very plain, then for the next three minutes one keyboard is basically inverted. Bach was a showoff. But it was also an exercise: A fugue is a way to learn about playing the piano.
MP: You were talking about the sublime. Notions of the sublime in photography tend to be associated with people like Andreas Gursky, because the images are so big. His pictures are kind of creepy, but your pictures can be sublime without that unsettling scale. They’re on a very human scale, and they’re really personal images. That said, maybe you’re distancing yourself from real emotion or being able to offer those statements that would reveal something.
RE: There may be a little bit of that. Or it’s a kind of sealing off—sort of what happened, in a different way, with what I thought was my relationship to conceptual art or conceptual photography. In 1999, I felt like I was in the cul-de-sac of typology. The excitement in getting to that place where the work is not named or namable is a key difference between a generation of artists. Richard Prince talks about how you name the thing, then move on. For me, I wanted to keep things unnamed for as long as possible, or play with the name, or take the name off.