Roe Ethridge, Typologies and the Natural Order

In a recent comment, my friend Nicola Kast referred me to this article from an older ArtForum about Roe Ethridge. Good timing, as the article seemed to discuss a few ideas that have been stirring in my head lately, many of which are interesting to think about in terms of the work of Ethridge, specifically.

I’ve decided to present selected portions of the text along with some of his images. A few of the photographs that I used were made after the article was actually written.

After earning a BFA at the Atlanta College of Art, where, like so many photography students in the ’90s, he fell under the sway of the Dusseldorf school, Ethridge tried out a systematic approach, the cold, observational logic of which seemed to make sense to a young photographer growing up in the rational, corporate environment of a town like Atlanta. A series of carefully described pictures of grassy patches next to highways–near freeway exit ramps and on medians–ensued, in which a Becher-style methodology was married to New Topographic understatement. But the impulse to shape the world to a predetermined photographic order, a form of stable compactness, came to feel inadequate to him, in the face of the multiplicity of the photographable, the fluidity of the medium, the rapid rhythms of contemporary life, and the changing sphere of ’90s photography. The desire grew to rattle the discipline, to “get the typologies wrong,” as he says, to release himself into a more hyperactive form of production, which, without forsaking the concrete descriptive capabilities of photography, could also embrace its aleatory or involuntary possibilities–the natural “serendipity” of the medium, he calls it. “I like to keep the series short and linked,” he says. “And then there are these one-offs–travel pictures, pictures from a job, pictures of food–that aren’t part of a series but which become their own group.”

Junction, Atlanta, 2003
© Roe Ethridge

County Line Mall Sign 1/5, 2004
© Roe Ethridge

If commercial photography is about the stimulation of desire in the service of consumption, then Ethridge plays with this dynamic in two seemingly unrelated series: a group of effortlessly beautiful pastoral landscapes made in upstate New York, which he says relates more to the imagery of covetable real estate than traditions of the Romantic or picturesque, and a sequence of portraits of young models (2000-2001).

New York Water (White Pine Camp), 2000
© Roe Ethridge

Leigh Yeager, 2003
© Roe Ethridge

At one point, the author addresses the Typologies of the Bechers in order to apply their studies to the idea that “internal typologies” exist within the medium of photography — and that Ethridge explores the redundancy of the medium as a conceptual gesture.

The Bechers bequeathed to photography a form of restrained authorship based on the predetermined selection of strictly delimited, typological subjects in which meaning emerges from the description of differences observed among more or less similar things. By the early ’80s, with the arrival of the Pictures generation and appropriationists such as Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, the possibilities for authorship were restricted even further: In a postmodern world supersaturated with imagery, the only conceivably radical act was to acknowledge the impossibility of photographic originality and to merely select and incorporate images that were already in circulation in the wider culture. The subject of photography shifted from the phenomenological world to the medium itself as a system of representation. For a photographer of Ethridge’s generation, in a world ever more choked with ever faster-flowing imagery, the philosophical dilemma remains, but the strategy is different. In rehearsing photography’s repertoire of subjects, genres, styles, and techniques–astrophotography, motion photography, editorial and fashion photography, portraiture, and landscape, for example–Ethridge moves through photography’s own internal “typologies” in a way that acknowledges the putative redundancy of the medium while simultaneously reclaiming a space for artistic maneuver. Ethridge sees reengaging with the range of subjects that now reside within the popular culture of photography as a conceptual gesture, a kind of post-appropriative act that recognizes the impossibility of absolute originality while still investing in photographic authorship. The act acknowledges art as one more system among many systems under capitalism, in which the dynamic of production and distribution is more meaningful, ultimately, than notions of innovation or transformation. As Ethridge expresses it: “Images are redundant. I am implicating myself as part of that redundancy.”

Town and Country, Liberty, New York 1/5, 2005 and R’Ville 1/5, 2005
© Roe Ethridge

Art photographers have long had a relationship with commercial practice, but where the pattern is usually to underplay the non-art roots of their work in order to release it more fully into art, Ethridge is unusual in his enthusiasm for photography’s double life, which distinguishes it from painting or sculpture. “New York is the Hollywood of print publishing,” he says. “The status of photography is different. I see myself on both sides; there’s a mutual attraction. Everything seems to end up in a magazine sooner or later.”

Is it true? Does everything seem to end up in a magazine sooner or later? I can’t help but think of Ryan McGinley’s new video for PUMA, or Alec‘s hybrid of fine art and fashion — Paris Minnesota.

When Ethridge jettisoned a systematic approach to photographic depiction, paradoxically he freed himself to address the system as a subject in his art. He recognizes that the contemporary world is defined less by the objects it produces than by underlying networks and circuits, by the hyperkinetic systems of production and distribution that propel those objects out and around the world; in his view photography also is less a medium of fixed or static representation than a constantly motile carrier of information.

Orange Grove #4 1/5, 2004 and Rick 1/5, 2005
© Roe Ethridge

For Ethridge, the exhibition itself becomes–in a way analogous to the pages of a magazine–a containing structure in which to temporarily map and order images in terms of their interrelationships rather than their singular meanings. This thinking was behind his teasing juxtaposition of shots of UPS couriers, the young models, and pine trees in a 2000 exhibition at Andrew Kreps. “UPS is important because of what happens today with catalogues,” he says. “You put the clothes oil the model, take the picture, produce the catalogue–presumably from pine trees–and mail it out. We order the clothes off the Internet, and it comes by UPS. Everything is working. Everything is involved in production and distribution. It’s the natural order today.”

Red Diamondback, 2006
© Roe Ethridge

Read the full article here.


  • What I love about Roe Ethridge’s work is that it’s smart. It not only forces us to make connections between the images, but also relies on our knowledge of the history of photography. It can be viewed on many levels.

  • Kevin

    Steidl is publishing Roe’s work from the Rockaways in October. I am very interested to see the project. The book description sounds fantastic.

  • Geoff

    This is great! I read this article awhile back and thought: why isn’t there more being written about Roe Ethridge? I think he’s one of the most interesting artists working with photography today (and a big influence on me personally).

    Some of the notions raised in the article just seem so right on, or so pervasive, that I catch myself thinking about some of the conclusions almost daily (not least when I’m out photographing).

    Not to sound like too much of a cheerleader, I just find it surprising that someone so widely exhibited (and collected) doesn’t get more ink. Could it be because, in a way, a lot of what’s going on in his work is self-evident — on the one hand almost invisible for its pervasiveness and on the other hand helping to fundamentally define the fabric of contemporary image-making?

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