Imagine Bach, hunched over his sheet music with a fountain pen, furiously scrawling and writing out his newest composition. Now take that image of Bach, and replace his fountain pen with a camera, and his sheet music with a photograph. This is Roe Ethridge; this is what he wants you to see. Ethridge’s new show at Andrew Kreps Gallery titled Rockaway Redux, is a visual document in the experiements of “re:” to redux, revisit, recompose, reinstate, reject, rearrange and restore, in that the boundaries between document and construct become removed.
Roe Ethridge is an image composer, creating new permutations of portfolios from reused photographs. In a sense, he really ‘gets his money’s worth’ out of his images. Ethridge seems more comfortable in the publication format, giving him the freedom to remix his images into new contexts over and over again. Some images exhibited at Kreps were originally part of Ethridge’s book also titled Rockaway Redux. However, for the Rockaway Redux exhibition, Ethridge wanted to continue the themes and motifs from the book but with the exhibition in mind rather than the publication.
Ethridge recently was interviewed by Emma Reeves for The Journal about this new series of images, some exclusively included in the book, and some recycled for the exhibition. In his discussion with Reeves, Ethridge speaks about his working process in terms of a fugue, a type of composition normally reserved for musical rhetoric. He mentions that to him it’s very formal and feels a bit like an exercise, but actually it’s extremely improvisational. This analogy of a fugue composer actually seems fitting to Ethridge’s practice; since the 17th century, the term fugue has described what is commonly regarded as the most fully developed procedure of imitative counterpoint. A fugue opens with one main theme, the subject (ex: Rockaway), which then ‘sounds’ successively in each voice in imitation; when each voice has entered (the entire sequence of photographs), the exposition is complete. In this sense, fugue is a style of composition, rather than a fixed structure. So the fugue may be considered a compositional practice rather than a compositional form.
Other artists have worked in this practice before; Ethridge is not unique to this “process before product” working method, yet Ethridge feels that this controlling of his layouts, or perhaps the manipulation of his portfolios, has become an important process for him – its another kind of composition. He mentions to Reeves that when things get sequenced, they gain purpose. Either in his actual sequencing of still shots, or in the reconstructions of new photographs from his old photographs, Ethridge uses a cyclical process, so that in some shape or form he stays self-referential.
Having experience working in the commercial photographic realm and his father an amateur photographer, Ethridge somehow pulls all of this into creating his own voice, something he claims is inundated in his life from growing up in the South. An evolution, partly influenced by his memory of images and partly an investigation of clichés, guides Ethridge’s work towards his fugue state of internal infiniteness. This is the beauty of his photographs, that elastic element allowing them to slip somewhere between commercial, amateur, and fine art forms. In an 2003 interview with Christine McQuade from Seeing & Writing, Ethridge commented that the ability of photographs to function in different contexts becomes almost like a little bit of the burden of photography. “It's great that it can do that, but sometimes it's hard to make judgments about images because they're so contextual. It's a nebulous area.”
The exhibition at Kreps is composed in a such a way to create micro-dialogues on each wall. By juxtaposing images next to one another he recontextualizes the individual photographs on a parts-to-whole scale. Ethridge’s images are large scale, juicy color-soaked (whether monochromatic or not) moments that play off of one another, so that again, the end result is a document where the whole is more important than the sum of its parts. However in this way it seems as if his photographs cannot stand alone, but must be grouped successfully to serve his point; he shoots dependent photography. Yet Ethridge finds a way to photograph the mundane (and blow it up in your face) in such a way to monumentalize these micro-moments from his greater theme. He mentions to McQuade how the nature of large format photography lends itself to these still objects:
“The scrutiny that is able to happen with that size lens and that much information is irresistible in terms of making and reading the image. It has a seductive power to transform something like a Kleenex box — an object that you'd walk pass a hundred times and wouldn't notice. Somehow with light bouncing off the object [and] recorded onto film, it turns into this other kind of thing. Recording the ordinary is also a documentary record of what things look like. That's important.”
So where is the viewer entrance into Ethridge’s self-cylcling, fugue photography? Perhaps it is in the notion of the everyday, caught somewhere between the amateur and the glossy magazine editorial aesthetic. Ethridge explains that photography ultimately never stops moving along the spectrum between the specialist and the dilettante. On one hand, everyone knows how to take a picture. You don't even need to know how to take a picture to take a picture. At the same time, it can be the most overwrought, specialized technical form. There's something about that conflict there in my own work. The dilettante is there, and the specialist is there, too. He mentions that he started to think of Rockaway as a place that would disappear, in a sense, become a relic. Given that Rockaway has the word “away” in it, it made sense to him to broaden his image scope. Ethridge sums it up best by writing that one of the reasons he became so interested in this displaced, broad scope approach is an effort to embrace the arbitrariness of the image and image making itself. “Another reason for the wild style is the dread of conclusiveness. The dread of finitude. This work is against death and finality. No that’s too byperbolic, let’s say it’s about working in the service of the image and getting my kicks too.”
Rachel Reese, 2008