Roe Ethridge, Apple Bees, 2009, C-print 34 x 44 inches
with Deanna Sirlin
Roe Ethridge, Self Portrait, 2007, C-print , 36 x 24 inches
Roe Ethridge grew up in Dunwoody, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. One can only surmise the level of banality there and the effect it had on this artist. This suburb has a highway intersection tagged “Spaghetti Junction,” and on every corner there is a strip mall, each more unlovely than the next. The beauty Ethridge found in this place is reflected in his photos, which successfully mix nostalgia with irony.
In an early exhibition of 1995, Ethridge showed a series of photos that were made with a pin hole camera of a blurred figure in front of walls with decorative wallpapers of yellow, blue, and pink flowers. These photos called up the images of portrait paintings from the 19th century mixed with pattern and decoration paintings as background for Francis Bacon-ish blurs of the sitter.
Most striking are Ethridge’s self-portraits. In 2010, an art collector commissioned him to photograph his collection, which included an etching of a Rembrandt self-portrait based on a painting by Raphael, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514–1515. Rembrandt sketched the Raphael while it was up for auction, redrawing the painting and using the composition as the basis for a self-portrait on an etching plate. Ethridge photographed this Rembrandt etching, and the photograph is now in the collection of Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ethridge went on to make several significant self-portraits; the lineage of both portraiture and self-portraiture is important to understanding Ethridge’s work. He is acutely aware of the references he makes and where his work fits into the art historical canon. His own self-portraits do not reinvent compositions of the past, but more importantly, connect his work to the image of the artist and its relationship to self, to portraiture, and to persona.
Roe Ethridge, Liberty Square, Liberty NY, 2005–2006,39 1/2 × 56 13/16 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee
Deanna Sirlin: I would like to begin with some questions about your self-portraits. There are two that I think are significant works, one from 2000 where you stare back into your camera as the artist with a black eye, and the other a self-portrait from 2007 where you are waving at the viewer with a big smile and wearing a ship captain’s hat. Are you creating a persona with each of these photos? Is there a tradition of self-portraiture that you are tapping into?
Roe Ethridge: I’d say yes, in some way “tapping into tradition.” In one way, it seems unavoidable to me to make my work without tapping into something compositionally or conceptually that has preceded me. Nothing new under the sun! That said, I think I sometimes only discover later the underpinnings of an image and so I might unconsciously be making a self-portrait that refers to Frans Hals (ship captain) when in the moment it was the hilarious captain’s outfit and I was really channeling Capt. Merrill Stubing from The Love Boat! For the black portrait, I was consciously thinking about Warhol’s self-portraits and Nan Golden’s famous black-eye picture. Scene of the crime or portrait of a criminal.
Roe Ethridge,Untitled (Self Portrait) 2000-2002,color photograph , 30 x 24 inches
Roe Ethridge,Rembrandt, 2010, Chromogenic color print, 53 13/16 × 39 7/8 inches,
DS: Rembrandt, which you made in 2010, is a photo of an etching of Rembrandt’s self-portrait. Was this photograph an investigation of the artist’s persona? What in particular did this work mean to you?
RE: Hmm, this may be a disappointing answer. I was shooting a commission for a collector, and as a part of that commission, I set out to make ”copy images” of the works I that he had installed and visible in his house.
Roe Ethridge, Apple and Cigarettes, 2004–2006, C-print, 40 × 32.5 inches
DS: Is your still-life photography intended to be nostalgic or ironic? Are the two related in the your work?
RE: LOL! Both, because I don’t think I can fully embrace either impulse. I was just thinking about the Apple and Cigarettes image and how it was in part an homage to my love of the vanities but also a urge to “document” that moment in time and all the loose threads that wait for that moment to weave together. Late September light in Montauk, my honeymoon, the oral irony of a horse apple, Adam and Eve, Martha Stewart Living meets Outerbridge smoking!
Roe Ethridge, Thanksgiving 1984, 2009, Chromogenic color print, 43 1/8 × 34 13/16 inches, MoMA NYC
DS: Did growing up in the South have an influence on your work? Is time and place important for understanding your photographs? Is the beauty of the banality part of the remembrance?
RE: Absolutely! I have come to the conclusion that the hyper-decorative elements of the suburban home I grew up in during my pre-teen and adolescent years trained my eye to see. At that critical stage of development, I was getting a heavy dose of pattern and color that translated into a kind of recognition I experienced later in art school of Matisse, Robert Morris, the Pattern and Decoration movement, particularly that big Robert Zakanitch painting. But also to see Lee Friedlander as one who “cut out” images from the patterns and chaos in the world in front of him.
Roe Ethridge,Old Fruit. 2010. Chromogenic color print, 50 x 40 inches
DS: Is your idea of beauty and how it can be perceived informed by your commercial work?
RE: I think my commercial work is informed by my “artist’s” impression of what beauty is or is supposed to be. So, it’s a bit of an echo. A chicken or egg type deal.
DS: In 2018, you curated a show of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. What was significant to you about being a curator of these works? Did your perception of the artist change in the process of curating this exhibition?
RE: I remember being greatly affected by the story of Mapplethorpe’s death when I was a 19-year- old photo student. I learned a lot about him through the process of curating the show. It was in some way like a return to this person and their work almost as a friend or peer. He was beyond prolific; there are tins of amazing images in his archive that have never even been seen in public! I was able to uncork some of these vintages for the show, so fun. I also came to understand his struggles as an artist making photography and slipping in between both. Sometimes dismissed by gatekeepers of both milieus.
Roe Ethridge, Peas and Pickles, 2014, Dye sublimation print on aluminum,
49 1/2 x 33 inches
Roe Ethridge, Apple and Cigarettes, 2004–2006, C-print, 40 × 32.5 inches
DS: What are you focusing on during the pandemic? Are you able to work?
RE: Speaking of prolific. One great thing about this the is I have been able to make work in a way that I might at a summer rental or a vacation where I have time to set things up or find inspiration in the ordinary stuff that I could see if I was running around NYC (or busily answering emails undoing interviews with my Foundations teacher ;-).
DS: Do you distinguish between the way you see through the lens of the camera and the way you perceive the world without it? How is it different?
RE: Cameras all create a different frame. I used to only shoot large format and I think that trained me to see things compositionally first in that box-y rectangle. When I started using digital, it was like moving from a musket to a machine gun. I really had to learn how to slow down. Now, I make a lot of images using my phone. Ironically, it’s more like the 4 x 5 in aspect ratio and also in the way your eyes are looking at the glass rather than one eye looking through a keyhole.
Roe Ethridge, Refrigerator, Dye sublimation print on aluminum, 30 x 24 inches,
Roe Ethridge, Abby Champion, 2017, Dye sublimation print on aluminum,
49 1/2 × 33 inches
DS: Which photo of yours is the most significant to you?
RE: Pfffff. I love all my children (though not equally!).
Hmmm. At the moment, I would say that my next magazine cover that is the most significant.
All images courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps, NYC.
Born in Miami, Roe Ethridge received a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1995. He moved to New York City two years later and began working as a commercial photography career, over time providing catalog images, editorial and fashion shots, and working for publications including New York Times Magazine, Allure, Spin, Vice and Wired.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.