Sacrifice Your Body by Roe Ethridge

photo-eye Blog
April 2014

Photographs © Roe Ethridge, courtesy Mack Books. BookTease™ images © photo-eye.
Photographs © Roe Ethridge, courtesy Mack Books. BookTease™ images © photo-eye.
Photographs © Roe Ethridge, courtesy Mack Books. BookTease™ images © photo-eye.
Photographs © Roe Ethridge, courtesy Mack Books. BookTease™ images © photo-eye.

I have never quite grasped the work of Roe Ethridge, and so it may seem strange that his new book is the subject of my review. But I approached this task with an open-mind, wondering if perhaps this enigmatic work was best consumed through the book form. I set out to determine how I relate to his unique brand of “elusive.”

When Ethridge was nominated for the much-coveted Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2011, the committee described his work in the following way: “Blurring the boundaries of the commercial with the editorial, and the mundane with the highbrow, Ethridge’s conceptual approach to photography is a playful attack on the traditions and conventions of the medium itself.” Sacrifice Your Body epitomizes many of these attributes. He mined pictures from various sources: personal documentary images from his mother’s hometown of Palm Beach County, Florida, commissions for designers such as Chanel and Alexis Bittar and screenshots from Google Earth, to name just a few. The resulting photographs range from sleek, clean and glamorous to something akin to what I produced on vacation as a child with a disposable camera. Here, Ethridge’s “playful attack on the traditions and conventions of the medium” extends not only to photography, but also to his idiosyncratic — and for me, frustrating — take on the photobook form.

But let me start by saying, the book itself is beautifully executed. I loved the way the pages felt between my fingers as I flipped through, oscillating from glossy and smooth to something almost imperceptibly grittier. Images range from lush, full-bleed spreads to more traditional, single image per page treatments, with no shortage of deliberately integrated white space. When you crack the handsome, white leatherette spine of Sacrifice Your Body — emblazoned with an emerald font evocative of an Eighties horror movie poster — you would never imagine end pages suggestive of your grandmother’s bucolic home. This jarring tension is taken to an extreme as the book unfolds.

For Ethridge, this project examines his relationship to his mother and adolescence. While some images allude to this underlying thematic — models reminiscent of mother figures, a significant focus on football, domestic spaces and the Florida landscape — the schizophrenic sequencing and fragmented narrative structure eclipse any sense of an overarching, coherent story in favor of a wholly disorienting experience. There are instances where several images follow in an apparent sequence — the inside of a bank, street scenes of Paris, fishermen at the docks. But the relationships between these vignettes are ambiguous, as is the criteria for how he chooses to transition between dissimilar subjects. I struggled to find a foothold.

Ethridge repeatedly uses the word fugue to describe his work, “[…] this thing that is both a bad mental state and a compositional form has been a long-term interest, inspiration, and method for me in my work.” I theoretically like this concept — this paradoxical dichotomy embodied in a single word. I just don’t see this manifest in the pages of Sacrifice Your Body. Where is the compositional form? And can characteristics fundamentally antithetical to composition — disharmony and fragmentation — really be considered in those terms?

The most atypical sequence in Sacrifice Your Body was the most seductive element to me. A series of images document a shiny white Durango traveling down a dirt path, and ultimately its bizarre submersion and retrieval from a canal. Presented almost exclusively as full-bleed spreads, the images suggest an eerie, unsettling tale. As you move from page to page, the scene becomes almost palpable; I can smell the humid air, hear the water pouring from the car’s windows, feel the marshy dirt beneath my feet. There is a semblance of a narrative here and I am inclined to keep looking, to devise my own version of this fiasco. This is just one part, though, one piece of a book that never seems to truly constitute a whole.

There is the kind of elusive that challenges you, that excites you with its mystery. You delve deeper and deeper, returning, seeking out some answer, some meaning — the “ah-ha” moment, a small victory where you meet eye to eye with your version of clarity. Then, there is the elusive that remains out of reach — permanently. You cannot wrap your head around it. You feel foiled, oblivious to the punch line. And no matter how much time you spend, the end game is the same. “I must be missing something.” Perhaps, however, my response to Sacrifice Your Body is exactly what Ethridge hopes to provoke, upending everything I crave and expect in a photobook. In discussing this book with a colleague, everything I found irksome, he deemed exciting and cutting-edge. So it seems this kind of work, this aesthetic of dissonance either appeals and excites with its subversive novelty, or alienates with its illogical trajectory… and I happen to fall into the later category.