A musical composition based on repetition and the continuous interweaving of points and counterpoints, as well as a disturbed, amnesic state, the fugue is at the heart of Roe Ethridge’s work. For over ten years Ethridge has used this idea of the fugue to create layered images that are both easily legible and confounding, building them into series full of twists, turns and dead-ends. He spoke with Marc Feustel about how he came to juggle his commercial work with his fine art photographs, his love for the fugue and how his relationship with his mother was the inspiration for his latest project, Sacrifice Your Body.
How did you start out with the Sacrifice Your Body project and what was the inspiration behind it?
It really started once I had the title, Sacrifice Your Body. It’s a phrase that some of the mothers used to shout from the stands when I played football in little league and in high school. My mother claims that she never said those words herself, but the phrase stuck in the family lexicon. It’s absurd and hilarious, but also kind of true. The phrase became the basis for a project addressing my relationship with my mother. The book is made up of two parts: the first half includes pictures I took in her hometown of Belle Glade, Florida over the course of a few days; the second half of the book is more of a fugue-like mix of pictures that I made on my own combined with pictures I made for commercial and editorial projects which are then thematically folded into this idea of the relationship with my mother. This idea of the relationship with my mother, like many of my projects, was an inspiration or starting point, but not necessarily what everyone would take away from looking at the book or seeing the show.
It’s an interesting title because it can be read in many different ways, which seems to be the case with many of your photographs.
One of the things I realised later is that the phrase also applied to the pictorial logic I have been using: working on projects that aren’t really projects as such, but are more about the process of discovery. It dawned on me that the “body” of the title could also be thought of as a body of work that needs to be sacrificed in some way.
You juggle both commercial and fine art work, weaving these two things together quite closely. How did that process start for you?
It was something I was always interested in as it is particular to photography, but I first started to bring in commercial pictures into the gallery context in 1999–2000. I was living in New York and trying to make a living as a photographer. I got an assignment for Allure magazine doing a how-to beauty series, girls putting on make up or curling their hair. The first assignment I got was how to put on lipstick. When the girl showed up, she had these extremely chapped lips, which seemed like a cruel irony. In the unretouched version of the picture, which was shot on a large format camera, that detail really came through. But it was also a really beautiful portrait. I felt that I couldn’t let this picture disappear into the archive of my commercial work. It seemed like there was something more to it than the simple execution of an assignment. It was about the awkward relationship between myself and the model, my desire to make the picture, her desire to be in the picture. It was fraught with so much desire and complicity that it was better than any of the ideas I might have. It made me realise that the studio could be a place, just like the street, where something could just “happen”. From that one picture I carried on doing these portraits of models, which eventually became a five-image series which then got interspersed in an exhibition with pictures of UPS drivers, pine trees, and an aerial photograph composited of a car carrier ship in New York harbour. It was in that exhibition at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in 2000 that the notion first came about of mixing my art ideas with these great things that happened because of doing commercial work.
Although it is something you stumbled on initially, this approach is something you have continued using throughout your career. How did it become an artistic process for you and how has it changed over time?
It has definitely changed over the past fourteen years of consciously using this approach. I often refer to it as an inventory of everything: whether it’s an art project, a commercial job, or something that was appropriated, these images are all part of my inventory. I used to think of it as a personal stock photo agency from which an image can be repurposed to function within a group for a show or a book.
For example in 2006 I did a show with Gagosian. I had an idea for the project, but it failed and I couldn’t make the pictures I wanted to. But I had six or seven images that I really loved that were in my inventory, which became the starting point for that show. One of the images, Apple and Cigarettes, was already a couple of years old and I just hadn’t found a place for it. This little group then became the prism through which the rest of the show was made.
In Sacrifice Your Body you use a broad range of different kinds of images, both in terms of the content and their visual style, from documentary to fashion or even an image from Google Street View. It seems that there is no limit to what images you make use of. How do you go about pulling these different things into what becomes a project?
Once I started to cross-pollinate these different images, something happened. That reaction was so surprising to me, it was as if the thesis was being written through doing it. Jim Jarmusch, who I consider to be a real influence on my work, has said, “It's hard to get lost when you don't know where you're going.” When I first heard that quote, it immediately resonated with me because that is exactly how I work. That is how I felt when I discovered this idea of the fugue.
How have you used the idea of the fugue in your work?
Around 2000 I was reading Walker Percy’s novel, The Last Gentleman. It’s the story of a guy who moves from the South to New York City to attend Princeton, but drops out. He keeps falling into amnesic states and waking up in these Civil War battlefields in Virginia. The way he describes it, people would go into these fugue states where they would fall into an amnesic state and go on these far-flung trips and then come to consciousness in the midst of the trip.
I wasn’t familiar with the idea of the fugue, so I when looked it up and discovered its dual meaning relating to a particular mental state but also to a form of musical composition, I found it fascinating. The author’s loss of identity in a fugue state was interesting to me as I liked the idea of being free, of getting away from the scripted identity of being a straight white male from the south. I was also interested in the formal aspects of the fugue as a musical composition, especially in terms of sequencing: having different elements reacting to each other harmoniously or disharmoniously, as things that can be refrained or reversed. The idea was really helpful for me to get away from the suffocating problem of the “project”. It gave me a place where I could speak in different voices and discover rather than just trying to illustrate an idea.
You have spoken about the fact that you are constantly dealing with images on the screen. What influence does that have on your work and how does that relate to your interest in books?
Obviously we have moved from the analogue world of contact sheets and work prints on the wall to the digital consolidation of that process. I’m not at the lab making prints, as soon as I take a picture I’m looking at it on the screen. The screen is infinite and you can access everything from this singular place. In some way you could say that my work is mirroring the conditions of the image today. Everything is in a single container, it’s just a question of organising it.