Roe Ethridge presents two decades of work in a vibrant new monograph

View Gallery 9 Photos
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Blending fine-art, commercial, and editorial images, Roe Ethridge questions compositional norms and artistic propriety

The first photograph in Roe Ethridge’s new photobook American Polychronic asks more questions than it answers. A pale yellow refrigerator dominates; twine-wrapped vases and fake daffodils are displayed on top, while its facade is covered in photos, magnets and stickers. Among them are three WWF pandas, which form a neat diagonal row, next to a Chanel business card. Below that, a large Florida State Seminoles football sticker draws the eye downwards, where a black and white labrador is walking across the frame from left to right. 

The image could belong to a family album, an advert, or perhaps even a ‘this is what the real America looks like’ feature in Apartamento or LIFE. Its title is simply ‘Refrigerator 1999’, so when Ethridge explains its story, it feels as though we are disrupting the book’s intended anonymity.

The photograph was made in Ethridge’s childhood home in Atlanta, Georgia, while on assignment for The New York Times Magazine. The image found its way into his exhibitions as recently as 2020 (Old Fruit at Gagosian, New York) but the original story was never published. The image perfectly encapsulates Ethridge’s ethos: photographs made in one context plucked and placed into another, often as an act of questioning compositional norms and artistic propriety. Why shouldn’t a picture from an abandoned journalism shoot wind up in a commercial gallery two decades on?

© Roe Ethridge.
© Roe Ethridge.
© Roe Ethridge.

American Polychronic features 23 years’ worth of fine art and commercial photography – from portraits of philosopher Jacques Ranciere and actor Elisabeth Moss, to object studies, family snapshots and shoots for Balenciaga. ‘Polychronic’ means multiple contexts; tasks or events occurring simultaneously; everything happening all at once; a sprawling multiverse of images. “The polychronic idea isn’t a testimonial to anything,” Ethridge explains, “It’s just what happened.”

Artworks are presented from oldest to newest, while commercial and editorial photographs run newest to oldest. The book’s affinity with shopping catalogues – visual abundance, objects in situ, an emphasis on consumer culture – is no accident. Catalogue shoots for the likes of JCPenney were Ethridge’s first taste of professional photography. His commercial work retains some of the genre’s hallmarks, deployed somewhere between emulation, subversion and gentle parody.

In one image, model Jess Gold leans out of a Volvo window, her pose and clothing (a large-collared patterned shirt and orange woollen jumper) suggesting a particular kind of American suburbia. But behind the door, the rest of the car is missing – the social trope has been reduced to a prop. It’s the same later on when a photograph of three white ceiling lights creeps onto the adjacent page, a stock image somehow freer without context. When sheets from real shopping catalogues are included, they are laid onto a lightbox so that both sides are visible, giving the 4×5 photographs the appearance of collages.

“Photography is like Ju-Jitsu. You’re taking whatever is coming at you, and doing something with it, sectioning off something in the world.”

For Ethridge, compositional rules are made to be broken. Or perhaps they don’t really matter that much in the first place. Readers can make their own connections, though occasionally sequences of three or four images create vignettes, lifting juxtaposition into knowing irony. A scanned negative of downtown Manhattan a month after 9/11 sits between one of Ethridge’s many studies of pigeons and an enlarged UPS logo. Something about the banalities and commerce that surround American tragedy, perhaps? Almost certainly not. “Photography is like Ju-Jitsu,” Ethridge explains. “You’re taking whatever is coming at you, and doing something with it, sectioning off something in the world.” 

© Roe Ethridge.
© Roe Ethridge.

Screenshots and family photographs add “a nice seasoning,” Ethridge says. One is of an iMessage conversation with Ethridge’s mum, ecstatic that she’s gotten her 20-year-old Lexus fitted with new wheels and tyres. ‘Woohoo!!’ he replies. This is more than just play. Ethridge is interested in ideas of canonicity and conceptualism, in the ripple effects of doing away with convention. “I thought that to be a conceptual photographer I needed to have a thesis,” he says. “When I tried it was too explicit or boring. I wasn’t as interested in the project at the end as I was at the beginning.’”

Ethridge wants all photographers to resist the temptation to categorise themselves early. He recalls teaching a class to first-year photography students. He set the students an assignment, to cut out newspaper photographs without the captions and bring them to discuss. It’s an inauguration into Ethridge’s philosophy: that images exist in a sea of ever-changing meanings, and that artist intent or editorial context is just one of them. “You start reading them allegorically, compositionally, analysing the colour,” he says excitedly. “I make each picture without thinking too much, but I bring my entire self to it.”

American Polychronic by Roe Ethridge is published by Mack.