American photographer Roe Ethridge became a recognizable force in the fine art world with his serene but subversive portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. He often re-contextualizes and multi-layers images — sometimes his own, sometimes from the web, and once a laundry detergent ad he picked up from a grocery store in Williamsburg — to say something new about them.
Ethridge easily transitioned into fashion, which he calls "the most rarefied heir of commercial photography." He recently shot Kenzo's spring 2012 campaign and Dazed & Confused's March cover, and a large survey of his work will go up at Le Consortium in Dijon, France, next month. We sat down with the man, the legend in his Brooklyn studio to discuss some of his well-known works. Click through the slideshow to read his explanation of each picture.
1 of 15
“This was the cover of Vice magazine’s The Photo Issue 2010: Still Lifes. I love any time when I can illustrate or depict time. In this case, this shot depicts that through the fuzzy mold found on the strawberries.
Jesse Pearson, the editor at Vice [at that time], had suggested shooting something really disgusting for the cover. At first, we had gone to a compound where there were heaps of compost, because I figured we could find some really sweet disgusting shit there. It was too gross, I couldn’t deal with it. And then, to be honest, I kind of forgot about the project until Jesse was like, 'We have one week, can you come up with something in the next few days?' It was then clear what I needed to do. I went to my nearby deli and asked for the oldest produce they had, and after a week of letting the produce rot in a plastic bag, I photographed the image shown. I’m frankly surprised that it didn’t get more rotten.”
2 of 15
“This looks like it was photographed in a studio, but it was actually shot in a farmhouse in New Jersey. I can’t remember the owner’s name, but she worked for the company that does all the animal wrangling for TV and movies. So we had these birds sent up from Universal Studios Florida where they’re trained to fly into a box during a nighttime diorama. They’re pigeons, but I guess when they’re silhouetted they don’t look so ordinary.
Initially, my interest in shooting pigeons stemmed from their presence in this city and they’re also kind of regal and interesting. Eventually, I realized that you couldn’t photograph them on the street and get a good, solid picture. It’s not possible, so it made the most sense to use an established image production world to capture the moment. I used high-speed flash lighting to get that frozen motion. This series became a surrogate for that character in my works that shows one who is complicit with the camera and photographer.”
3 of 15
Myla with Column
“This was, I believe, the first time I’d done a nude shoot for real – and not just a wife or girlfriend. So it was one of these things where we were putting out our feelers to see who we could convince to take off their clothes. We ultimately chose Myla [DalBesio] because she seemed self-assured and in control with what she’s doing. She also has this physicality that also reminds me of a [Henri] Matisse, you know, she’s got something to look at and to articulate as a subject was something that interested me.
When we got there and started taking pictures, I was all sweaty and nervous, and I realized she was all sweaty and nervous, too, so I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve never done this before,’ and she was like, ‘Me neither.’ So, it was pretty awkward and funny.”
4 of 15
Chanel Spring 2009
“I found this image off Style.com. It was the day after my fall 2008 show with Andrew Kreps closed, and the following day was when the shit hit the fan [with the economy]. Finally, everything was going to hell. I didn’t think much of this image at first. It was just something that was interesting to me, so I put it in my little folder where I store various image clippings. It was only a couple years later when I was going through the folder that I saw the image and I was immediately drawn to it.
I don’t really remember, but I did some really shitty retouching on it; you can see over the camera’s right shoulder that I sort of blurred out the other girls behind her. I probably did this in a very sort of mindless, burned-out state because I’d closed my show and I didn’t really … I wasn’t really thinking about it as anything other than, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I was conscious about the crop and changing it to black and white, but everything else was done spontaneously with no reason or destination for it.
After some time, this image became pretty symbolic for me. When this look was designed probably in the summer of 2008 and then presented in the fall, it was created with the anticipation that everyone would have a lots of money and housing prices would continue to go up, so, you know, when that idea burst, there was something of: This is one of the last things we designed before we all went, ‘Oh fuck. I can’t afford Chanel anymore.’”
5 of 15
“This was shot in Tokyo from the 50th floor of the Grand Hyatt. I used this really cheesy, kind of zero-technology star filter. You place it in front of the lens and point it towards the light; in this case, it was the sun. But because I’m panned down from the sun, it created a single god-like streak of light instead of a star.
At the time I took this picture, I was also working on a commission for Goldman Sachs, and a lot of them are in the Le Luxe book, so as I was in my typical gathering, aggregating mode [of shooting], where I have my main subject of Goldman Sachs, but I want to interrupt this by something that is either thematically connected or literally connected to the work. It almost seemed natural to juxtapose these Tokyo cityscapes, alongside my documentation of the Goldman Sachs headquarters going up in New York.”
6 of 15
L.L. Bean Summer 2009
“This image is another one of those Sigrid [Agren] on the Chanel runway photos where I saved the image into my clippings folder. These clippings often serve as a source of inspiration for me, but it can also serve as an inventory of images that don’t have to be utilized right away. For me, the last couple of years have been about trying to consciously fold all these clippings into one big tune. I ended up using this image as a hinge image in a sequence in the Goldman Sachs book.
I’d also been working this nautical theme for a long time, and there was another cover that I had published in one of my previous books that was very similar to this image. They could almost be alternate covers, even though they have no relation to each other. It’s pretty dry, yes, but I also like the whole nostalgic factor with L.L. Bean.”
7 of 15
“This is my wife, Nancy. This is right after we first started seeing each other when she was still modeling. She had just gone on her swan song tour of Japan and I went over and stayed with her there for a couple of weeks, and we had just gotten back and I really wanted to do this portrait of her when all she wanted to do was talk with her friends. They were in the living room waiting, so she was like, ‘I don’t want to this. I just got finished working and I just want to hang out with my friends.’ And so, I think the intimacy and intensity of the picture is coming because she’s like, ‘Hurry up.’
I loved that shirt, and I was the one who insisted on the pearls. My mother wore pearls and I was fascinated with them in the sense that they gave off an air of primness when her expression [in the photograph] almost says the opposite thing.”
8 of 15
“This is another image from the picking clips. It’s a tiny, very low-res image that we blew up. I loved the efficiency of the photograph. It was also kind of a reference to a show I had done with Andrew [Kreps] seven years ago, called ‘The Bow.’ Included in that show was a picture of this gnarly bow in my parents’ basement that my mother bought at Phipps Plaza for a dollar. The metaphor for the bow was that it was a single standalone image in the show, whereas everything else was a part of a series. A bow has come to not only represent a gesture, but as a way of finishing things – to put a bow on it.”
9 of 15
“There’s this grocery store in Williamsburg that always had these big grids of these very homemade-looking still lifes. For years, I would stand there and look at them. Finally, I talked with the manager about getting a few images to include into my work, like this Tide image. Turns out, the manager was interested in photography, so we agreed to exchange a few of the stores’ product images for a few of my prints.
The photograph isn’t so much about the Tide image, as it is about being a kid, throwing your shoes up, and having fun. I used that plastic lattice as a motif for the image, and then began shuffling in the shoes, image, and light. Essentially, I wanted to treat the Tide image more like an object within the photograph.”
10 of 15
“This was for Cecilia Dean and her Visionaire calendar. Cecilia told me my image would fall on Thanksgiving, so I began to think back when I was 14-years-old and my 18-year-old cousin came up to Atlanta from Tallahassee for Thanksgiving, and I kind of had a crush on her. From that point on, it became pretty clear what I wanted to image to look like.
When I was younger, every fucking surface in my house was covered in some type of crazy wallpaper pattern, so I wanted to recreate this in the photograph. I was also thinking, ‘What did it look like when I was sitting at the table looking across at my cousin? Boobies.’ Which, of course, are covered here in this shot.”
11 of 15
“This is a shot of one of the trading floors in the Goldman Sachs headquarters during the time of my commission for them. I kept trying to find places I could return to in the building that were significant and this floor became that place for me because it’s where all the actions happens.
Over time, I kept returning to this spot and I noticed that through all the work that was going on, footprints of the workers, myself, and various others were being embedded in all the sawdust. It was a kind of way of saying to the guys who would later work on the fourth floor, ‘Hey, we were here before you.’”
12 of 15
“People always ask: are those watermelons?
I knew I wanted to make an image of the moon, but I didn’t know exactly how that was going to work out. I first tried shooting the moon with just a really long lens, but I wasn’t getting the resolution I wanted. I talked to all these amateur astro-photographers and they were all, like, ‘You have to get a special lens, man, and to attach to a medium-format camera to a telescope.’ So I did all that nerdy photography stuff and then it worked. I began shooting a couple of nights in a row, doing a new exposure every three seconds, and it was cool because when I processed the film, it was like a string a pearls going through the night sky.”
13 of 15
Dazed & Confused's March 2012 cover.
“For this cover, there was pressure to get a new model. The idea was to have four covers with these four new faces. I didn’t really speak to Erjona [Ala] because she’s 16-years-old and couldn’t speak English very well, but she was a fantastic model.
In this shot, we used mixed lights. There’s Tungsten hot lights on the backgrounds and there’s strobe lights on the foreground. It might look like she’s superimposed into the background, but everything’s actually all in camera. The feeling that it has two layers happened accidently; the shutter was open too long so the strobe light held her in frame, but because there was movement in the background, that stuff got blurred. As soon as we saw this on screen, we were all like, ‘This is what we need to do.’
I think it’s a different place for me to work in between the commercial vernacular and my personal work. Working in fashion is a sort of collaboration that I don’t get to have as an artist where I just dream up an idea. It’s more of a collaborative process and I’ve been enjoying working with these people: stylists, hair, and makeup artists.”
14 of 15
Kenzo Spring 2012 Ad Campaign
“What’s great about advertising is that once you establish what the goal is, you can really move forward with the project. I imagined the campaign being pasted on the side of a Parisian bus – we wanted something graphic with a super clean eighties punch. The trick was that you didn’t want it to be just a diversity thing; they’re black models modeling in a fashion story and we wanted to make it great. We let the models interact with the two bars and then we heavily composited the images together. It was a pragmatic way to maximize the one-day shoot to get everything done.”