I love Roe Ethridge and have said many a time that when this period of photographic history is distilled down, Alec Soth and Ethridge will be remembered as what was happening. But this most recent book Sacrifice Your Body, the basis of this show, has disappointed me with Ethridge’s output for the first time ever. It is especially disappointing coming from someone who has numerous times declared himself a book artist and not a gallery artist. What concerns me most about the Sacrifice Your Body book is that it feels indulgent. His Le Luxe book was large and at times repetitive, with pictures that got more and more deadpanned, until by the end you were just looking at screen grabs of images being processed in photoshop. It felt like a fuck you to the viewer in the most positive punk rock kind of way. Ethridge was challenging his growing fame in the art world or at least the photo art-world, daring his fans to follow on him a difficult artistic turn, like Black Flag doing long Dead-like instrumental jams. Ethridge was inviting all those who loved his work to get on his artistic path even if he wasn’t sure where it was going.
I for one found it exciting and was psyched to see where things were going to end up. The Sacrifice Your Body book is not much of a pay off. It is a step backwards, to what one might have expected from an artist who had gained fame for his idiosyncratic sequencing, and now shows at a blue chip gallery like Gagosian in Beverly Hills, his West Coast gallery. Almost half of the book is made up of straightforward snapshots of a car sinking into a roadside canal. By the time the car is fully submerged and police divers are on the scene, the pictures start to feel like crime scene photography. As mysterious as the pictures are, there are a lot of them, and they don’t get past the style and skill of a driver taking snapshots for an insurance claim. The pictures are mixed with the usual zoological selection of pictures, still-lifes, portraits, interiors, and landscapes, which make up most of Ethridge’s work. The skilled visual detritus forms a portrait of a worn but recently wealthy Floridian community filled with luxury moldings and people who have seen better days. The essay explains that Ethridge was driving to visit his Mother’s hometown in Florida, when he got out to take a picture without putting his car in park, and the car drove itself into a canal.
While not uninteresting, the car running into a canal seems to speak more to the experience of the photographer and less to the visual value of the pictures. The images from or about Florida are skilled and as good as any Ethridge has done. But I expected so much more after his New Photography show of photoshopped vernacular images and the end of the Le Luxe book. I had hoped we were on the verge of a major shift in Ethridge’s work. Instead, we get the tried and true work, which makes up the current show at Andrew Kreps. The show is distilled down to fifteen or so pictures and only one image of a muddy wheel to acknowledge the large series of pictures from the book of the car going into a canal. Leaving the viewer with a solid, but not exciting Ethridge show, it would be tragic to see Ethridge go the way of so many successful artists, making the same work for the next couple of decades. For a time at the turn of this century, it seemed that everything that could be done in photography had been done, and Ethridge changed the equation and opened things up. I believe he has more to offer then a cover band version of his earlier self. Or maybe the snapshots of his car in the canal was the next phase, and it’s all serial snapshot from here on out.