In “Nearest Neighbor,” his first solo museum exhibition in the U.S., on view until March 12 at Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, photographer Roe Ethridge plays with the boundaries between personal, fine-art and commercial photography, and the conventions that distinguish those genres. And he’s having none of them. (The show’s title is a reference to an algorithm used in Photoshop to extrapolate pixels from similar pixels nearby.) Some of Ethridge’s fine-art work has a commercial veneer, while his commercial work borrows the esthetics of fine art, and his personal work mocks the esthetics of advertising—in particular the slick and cheesy look of stock photography of the pre-digital age.
It’s a fun and fascinating tour, for which Ethridge often recruits family and friends. In one of the photographs, featuring his wife, Nancy, he riffs on an old Polaroid ad. The casting and styling are a little off, and behind Nancy’s happy-consumer smile we can see she’s in on the joke. In another image, he reconstructs his memory of a 1980s Thanksgiving spread, right down to the marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes and anemic-looking canned beans. It has a poppy, contemporary visual esthetic, minus any professional food styling. And that’s part of the fun: You look at some of Ethridge’s genre-bending images with the nagging sense that something’s off, and then you realize just about everything is.
Meanwhile, in images he shot for assignments—such as a Chanel necklace he shot for The Gentlewoman in 2014—Ethridge dispenses with slick technical perfection, as so much editorial and even a lot of commercial work does these days. His work suggests that the boundary lines between commercial, personal, and fine-art photography have shifted and blurred to the point where the distinctions are no longer meaningful. Thanks to advances in digital camera technology, almost anybody can make pictures that are technically proficient. Snapshots can look as good as advertising. And commercial photographs can look like personal work, or fine art. Ethridge implies, with humor and irony, that it’s the heart and soul of a photograph—how it feels and what it says—that matter, not how slick or “professional” it looks. —David Walker