Form and content

Ruminations on an interview with Alec Soth and Roe Etheridge at ParisPhoto L.A. 2013 – at=0

This conversation, facilitated by ParisPhoto LA and MC’d by Douglas Fogle, seemed to frame much of what is up for debate in contemporary photography today. While Soth makes a plaintive case for fraternity (via facial hair and similar age brackets) it seems clear that Etheridge and Soth are in fact poles apart; underlying schisms revealed in everything from their differing approaches to beards (hipster vs. unkempt), through their presentation prep (PDF vs PowerPoint) to their real motivation for image making. For Soth this is an attempt to push back the overwhelming tide of images that threaten to wash away any sense of specificity; it is a return to the centrality of the narrative. Etheridge, however, plays his cards relatively close to his chest throughout the piece, in contrast to Soths’ thoughtful and soul-baring contributions. For him form, and what he describes as a sort of “synesthesia” seem to be the key dictators of his design.

Etheridge enjoys masking meaning. His juxtapositions seem willfully obtuse, as if the meaning hinted at by their sequencing is there to be read only by those with a special code. He allows that he subscribes to the Jasper Johns mantra of “take a thing, do something to it, do something else to it, then stop”, and tells us that he applies this formula to aspects of design such as the organizing of background colors. Beyond that, any motivation to shape the content, be it personal, political or aesthetic is consciously withheld. Etheridge asserts that a level of frustration with the image-overload may be a motivating force, as could the desire framed by John Gossage to simply make something that annoys people. In an intriguing segment Etheridge talks about the conflicted and co-dependent states of his existence as a commercial and fine-art photographer, and one senses that a level of contempt may also feed the juxtapositions and appropriations in his work.

It may come as no surprise that I rate Soth’s work. I have long been a fan of his ability to make pictures that communicate complex human situations, and that unfold in sequences that layer and complicate meaning without ever obfuscating it. His main direction in this interview, framed as a question he posed Etheridge and that he constantly poses himself, is “why this picture?” Though Etheridge never really furnishes an answer beyond describing editing as the cooking of a good casserole, Soth spends a lot of time elucidating his reasons for making the bodies of work he has made, and one of the points that resonated strongly with me was his need to go out and have a ‘real-life experience’ in the process of making the pictures. This ultimately is what I feel invests Soth’s work with a depth and relevance that Etheridge’s lacks; this desire to connect, to head out into the world and to bring something back that ultimately reaches beyond the self.

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