You would never guess, looking at Roe Ethridge’s photographic works, that the native of Miami, Florida, wanted to be a professional American football player. But the 47-year-old, who obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography at The College of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, admits that he had a softer side as a kid. “I was hyper and hypersensitive. I loved football, but would cry my eyes out at the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk – such an incredibly melancholic theme song when the credits started to roll,” says Ethridge, who lives and works in New York, which he considers “the best place to leave and the best place to come back to”. Integrating conceptual photography with commercial work, his aesthetic is a postmodern take on photography’s classic genres of portrait, landscape and still life, and his work has been shown extensively at institutions around the world, including the Barbican Centre in London (2001), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2010) and Les Recontres D’Arles in France (2011). We speak to the man, who tells us about his work for Sportmax, his influences, and his first brush with photography.
How did you come up with this nautically inspired theme for the Sportmax campaign?
The nautical theme was already a part of the design of the clothing when I was brought on board. It just so happened that I was finishing my book and exhibition, “Shelter Island”, which had marine life as part of its coastal motif, so it melded with the concept perfectly.
Explain the concept of overlapping portraits and still-life images in the campaign. What were your artistic intentions?
I wanted to juxtapose the “on set”, “perfected” image with the “behind the scenes” images in the spreads. It was a way to generate accidents and unexpected combinations in a campaign. Though it wasn’t as completely experimental as my approach in some earlier editorial projects.
There’s something very “yesteryear” about your photos for Sportmax, yet they look very modern at the same time. What fascinates you about this dichotomy between past and present?
I find that when an image gets a little lost in time – not necessarily become timeless, but more a result of compressing decades into one frame – that is when I get that good feeling from an image.
What was it like shooting Mariacarla Boscono for the campaign? How was she?
It was so great working with here. Not only does Mariacarla bring something intuitive to the table, but also a level of intellect and professionalism. She’s also hilarious – lots of laughter that day!
How difficult is it for you to switch between “editorial” mode, “commercial” mode and “art photographer” mode? Are there distinct boundaries or are the lines getting increasingly blurred?
They are definitely blurred. I feel like there are times when a story or project will tell me from the start whether it’s going to cross over or not. And then two years later, there’s an outtake on the gallery wall or an “art” image is being used as a reference for a commercial project.
Whose work has influenced you or do you admire the most?
It’s such a weird mix of photography, art and film. My first big influences were Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol and David Lynch. Later in Art School, I’d say it was Thomas Ruff and the German objective photography (students of Bernd and Hilla Becher). But at that same moment, I was discovering Jeff Wall and Christopher Williams. Once I moved to New York City and started working as a commercial photographer, I started a bromance with Paul Outerbridge. His place in historical time – coming out of Pictorialism and balancing modernist ideas with applied photography – made sense to me.
What was your first brush with photography? And what was the moment you knew you wanted to do it for a living?
My father was a ’70s-style amateur photographer. I remember when he won second prize for colour photo he made of fireworks. Not sure what the context was, but he received a red ribbon. A few years ago, I was showing my book, Rockaway, NY, to my parents and there’s an image of a model pretending to untie her bikini top and my mother says to my father “Roy, that’s just like that picture you made when we lived in...” Apparently he had made a very similar image when I was too young to remember it, but perhaps it’s lodged in my subconscious.
How much has being born in Miami and growing up in Atlanta influenced your sensibilities and your work?
Growing up on the coast and in the deep South has no doubt influenced my work. I’m sure there’s more from those places informing my aesthetic than I consciously know.
What are you working on right now, and what can we expect in the near future? Any more solo exhibitions coming up?
I’m working on a survey show for the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. It’s basically a retrospective called “Nearest Neighbor”, with a loosely dual theme of extrapolation and juxtaposition.
What are your wardrobe essentials? What clothes and accessories can’t you live without?
I have a Margiela sweater with elbows blowing out, rips snags and holes. I haven’t found a replacement. Every year, I think, “ok, last season for this one”, but it just keeps holding on!