Other things this exhibition at Andrew Kreps asked viewers to sacrifice were: residual notions of originality in photography, good taste, a sense of history, belief in the cognitive value of art, and the comforting irony of camp.
Have we cleared the decks? That seems to be Roe Ethridge’s ongoing intention — to demonstrate the exhaustion of virtually every genre of photography, from the commercial still to the art photograph. How else to explain, for example, two versions of the same image of a flounder, one simply a crop of the other, or a diptych of ramen noodles that involves the side-by-side juxtaposition of the same banal image? One good thing about Ethridge is that he seems not have subscribed to any platitudes about the “transformation” of photography and its turn to abstraction, process, or sculpture. He keeps his eye squarely on the ball: how do we make pictures now, of what, and why?
Confronted by photographs that happily engage their roots in advertising, fashion, product still life, and vernacular imagery without ever promising to breathe new life into these convention-bound containers, viewers are by now apt to see in this work a terrible atavism. Even mortality – especially mortality – is a contentless cliché.
The skeleton in the title image is a jumble of plastic bones and a skull adorned with a Florida Seminoles baseball cap; “sacrifice your body” sounds like a football injunction. But Ethridge’s enormous influence on younger photographers reveals a struggle beneath the surface of contemporary photography to recover a distinctive value for its pursuit. There’s no going back to the prelapsarian days of the New Color, of the unphotographed and unconsecrated universe of places and things, and we can see photographers from Elad Lassry to Thomas Demand facing up to art photography’s irrelevancy in the face of a tsunami of image exchange. They’ve made probing pictures, but neither one has confronted the sheer familiarity of contemporary imagery as directly as Ethridge has. He has bent each stereotype he engages, and in doing so has shown younger photographers how to open up a space of discovery and pleasure, how not to be crippled by a sense that all the pictures have already been taken. Freedom involves deliberate forgetting of the past, recognizing that photographs are beautiful, and believing that the world is the best thing that ever happened to a camera, and vice versa.