Art & Photography / The Story Behind The Image

Your First Look at Roe Ethridge's New Book, Shelter Island

The esteemed fashion photographer gives us the inside scoop on his new series, which documents a month-long summer holiday on Long Island

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Shelter Island© Roe Ethridge 2016 courtesy MACK

With a vast portfolio of images that tread the fine line between art and luxury commercial photography, Roe Ethridge isn’t the type to veer off-course and create a sentimental photo series about his family summer holiday. Although his newest book was shot almost entirely over a trip to his family's rented holiday home on Shelter Island over the month of August last year, a sentimental family portrait it most definitely is not. “The idea was for it all to be portraits of Nancy, my wife, but after we did a few she got a little bit shy, and things started to take their own course," Ethridge explains. “It became much more about this family story in which I’m playing the everyman, where there’s a sense of a kind of end-of-summer malaise. It’s personal, but it’s also ordinary.”

‘Personal but also ordinary’ might be a kind of subheading for the series, which is actually titled Shelter Island. Ethridge’s subjects include a selection of seaside paraphernalia – a crab, a seashell, a kite that has crashed, dejected, into the water – along with a number of shots of his wife and their two young children, but the scenes are so recognisable with that sun-drenched memory of counting down the days which precede the beginning of September that they become almost anonymous.

“I think that sense of melancholia is especially clear in the shots of the sunset and the kite in the water – there’s kind of like a melancholic sunset that’s so weird – grey and cloud-covered. That was our last day, so it’s the last sunset of the summer vacation. The next day I shot the kite in the water, which was a sort of recreation of something that had happened earlier in August, when the kite must have blown out of some kid’s hands and made it all the way to our little beach there and gotten tangled.”

It addition to the universal sense of a growing unease that swells as summer comes to an end, the location for the photographs is oddly ubiquitous: a perfect readymade American home. “It was the third year that we’d rented this house – it’s a kit house from the early 20th century originally, from back in the day when you could order your house from Sears and they would deliver, you know? The family that owns it is very much a New York City family – he’s a hedge fund guy – but they have this fixation with Americana. The kids are grown now, and their garage has every kind of baseball, soccer ball, water skis, bikes of all kind, a sailboat – a collection of their life. It’s so American. It’s the same stuff that my parents have in their garage from their two-kid life in suburban Atlanta. It’s almost like walking into a set.”

Other themes seemed to crop up as the weeks unfurled: that of the handheld, for example. “Whether it’s literally depicting the crab in the hand, or the Coke bottles, or the shells, the flowers, the kite, Auggie with the bat,” he says. “Now that I’m saying it out loud it’s like I had consciously decided, this summer, to use images that were close-at-hand.” 

Ethridge is well known for unexpected juxtapositions in his work, combining multiple voices to surprise the viewer out of their expectations – “I could put a picture of dry ramen noodles a couple of pages away from a portrait of Gisele, you know what I mean?” – but in Shelter Island he chose to limit these disruptions to a more time-encapsulated rhythm. The decision to include the photograph of Pamela Anderson, taken originally for the A/W15 issue of The Gentlewoman, came afterwards. “I thought it was really perfect for the book. It’s a little bit of a surprise, but also kind of symbolic of the end of summer, harvest time, the impending bacchanal. I was at the Wallace [Collection] in London in the first week of December, they have those allegorical 19th-century figures on the first floor that represent the four seasons, and there’s one nude female figure who’s holding up grapes. She is fall, she’s the harvest.

The picture was already made, and it had been put in the magazine, then taken out, then put back in again. I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms, but once I saw that 19th-century classical figure holding grapes I was like, oh yeah, that’s what we need to do! We need Pam in there to ring the bell!”

Roe Ethridge: Shelter Island runs at Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, from January 22 until March 5, 2016. The accompanying book, published by MACK, launches today. 

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