Doug Ethridge interview
Interview with Doug Ethridge by J Swofford
J Swofford: Can you describe your first involvement in photography?
Doug Ethridge: Going way back to late grade school/junior high, I had an Instamatic camera that I used for taking snaps on family trips, summer camp and the like. I would shoot slides and then put on little slideshows for my friends. But my first really serious efforts were in college. I borrowed a friend’s twin-lens Yashica-Mat, got permission to use a faculty darkroom and taught myself to process film and make prints. I put out a perfectly awful book of b&w photos and poetry for my girlfriend at the time and I hope she had the good sense to destroy it a long time ago.
What was the genesis of the “Selective Memories” project?
First off, let me explain that almost every project I do begins with a multitude of ideas. It’s much like composing music or writing a script. Each decision refines the process. I’ll shoot “proof-of-concept” images along the way until I have a good sense of what I’m after, then I set out with intent, much like shooting a commercial assignment. I’ve learned to allow myself to get surprised and to let the images show me the way through twists and turns. Selective Memories started with a desire to work in palladium combined with an admiration for the emotional quality of Susan Burnstine’s work combined with a desire to hit the road and explore beyond my front yard. That all went into the blender. Palladium has an inherent nostalgic quality to it, so I felt that shooting with my vintage Rolleiflex would put me in a good frame of mind. Shallow focus opens the door to mystery, and the more I thought about it, I wanted these to be not literal “road trip” images, but more like fleeting memories of places glimpsed once, of momentary impressions. The final element that caused everything to gel was that my father had a stroke at Christmas last year. As he struggled to recover and recover he did, there was a period in which his memory was jumbled. He’s always been a great storyteller, but for a time, his stories became somewhat random recombinations of the “facts.” If you didn’t know what had actually taken place, his new interpretation made perfect sense. I was just profoundly struck by how fragile memory is, and that’s when I finally knew where this body of work was headed.
Palladium has an inherent nostalgic quality to it, so I felt that shooting with my vintage Rolleiflex would put me in a good frame of mind.
Can you speak to your choices of using black and white and selective focus?
Again, a desire to work in palladium, to get my hands wet again, combined with using selective focus to add mystery and a “memory-like” quality to the image.
What are the overarching themes of “Selective Memories” and how are these the same or different from your other projects?
It’s hard for me to think in terms of any “overarching theme.” I’ve never felt any need to intellectualize what for me is essentially an emotional process; by that, I mean that when I make an image it is usually in response to the emotional or sensory input. So I’m after emotional content in my images. All of my work, to me, is simply an exploration of what is out there for us to see. I’m interested in telling stories, illustrated by the way I perceive the world.
Can you be more specific about “emotional response”?
Perhaps a better way to put this is that I make my images guided by a process that is emotion-based and reactive in nature rather than thought-based or intellectual in nature. The initial construct is thought-based, i.e., “palladium prints from images shot with a Rolleiflex used wide open of moments encountered while mostly driving along the Pacific Coast from Neah Bay to San Diego”. The act of picture-making is emotion-based, reacting to the moment of what I see and how objects and people fall into the frame and interact with light, shadow, and form.
The act of picture-making is emotion-based, reacting to the moment of what I see…
It’s the difference between a Shastakovich Symphony and a Miles Davis performance. Both can be powerful and moving and appreciated on many levels. The Shastakovich piece is meticulously thought out with every note and every pause placed for a reason, and the piece is full of symbolism accessible pretty much only to those who know the “back-story” as it were. The Miles Davis piece begins with a general construct and then each musician responds “of the moment” as they interact with each other and the construct to create a new interpretation of the piece every time it is performed. These are two fundamentally different ways of working. Most of the time, I work like a jazz musician, improvising and reacting both to the moment and to the general construct of the piece I am working on. One thing you learn as a musician is that you simply cannot “think” your way through a complicated piece, at some point you have to give your “self” over to the music.
So when I say that I hope my viewers have an emotional response, it might be more precise to say that I hope they have a response based on emotion, that I have been able to take them someplace they may not have anticipated going, a response from the heart, not the mind.
The Zen concepts of satori and the koan speak clearly to me.
Aside from thinking in terms of emotion, what are the other common threads between your work? From perusing your website I see water and focus as the most prominent connections. Can you speak to these or the other common threads in terms of symbolism or what they mean to you personally?
I just don’t think in terms of symbolism, that’s not a meaningful concept to me personally. And yet, I try to make images that have enough unsaid content and/or mystery to them so that they have the potential to take each viewer to a unique place based on that viewer’s own frame of reference. So is that symbolism? I don’t know.
I would hope that there is a sense of continuity in the level of craft exhibited in my work, but equally, I would hope that if you chose four random series of images to hang as a show, viewers might have the impression of four different artists at work. I am generally most strongly drawn to light and structure and how these elements interact within the frame. I consciously choose to work with different formats; square, panoramic and rectangular, because it forces me to reconsider anew the relationships of objects one to another and to the frame.
The Zen concepts of satori and the koan speak clearly to me.
What specific impressions are you hoping to impart to the viewer?
I don’t have a political or social agenda, I don’t feel a need to impart any specific message. Nothing wrong with those things, it’s just not me. But whenever I can motivate a viewer to pause, to look twice, or to think about the way they view the world, or to simply enjoy the beauty of a moment I may have been lucky enough to capture, I am a happy guy.
What are the greatest influences for “Selective Memories” and for your work in general?
Without a doubt, music is the greatest influence on my work. It’s what I did before photography, and one of these days I will get back to it. There is a constant soundtrack running in my head when I’m shooting. I draw a lot of personal joy from seeing the work of many visual artists (painters and photographers), but there is no person or school or style that I have any particular desire to emulate.
Can you speak a little bit about how you promote your work?
My promotional efforts go up and down depending on available time. I’m represented by a great gallery, Verve Fine Arts in Santa Fe, and by Kevin Longino, a private dealer. These guys are some of the nicest people I know. They work hard for their artists. I do my part with them by constantly making new work and being a good, reliable business partner. So that’s some of it. I try and go to a review event or two a year to meet new people and build relationships. I try to stay in touch with anyone who shows interest. My website is nearly always up to date. I’m very, very fortunate to have friends that I network with. I try and follow up on any leads and opportunities that come my way. Mostly I am patient, determined and don’t stress.