Rating:Classic photobooks are often built around an artist’s focused project: the alienated nation in Robert Frank’s The Americans; the great river as metaphor for the large-format work in Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi; the fantastical work inspired by the Zambian space project in Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts. Roe Ethridge’s Sacrifice Your Body is not a classic photobook. Like his previous books, it highlights a variety of the photographer’s styles, from slick magazine work to personal, enigmatic images. The project’s theme is not readily apparent – I had to learn it on the street, from press and interviews dealing with the accompanying gallery show. But even without knowing the artist’s intent, the book comes into a kind of focus lacking in his other work.
Sacrifice Your Body is free form with a purpose. Images veer wildly from what seems like advertising work to less commercial images. But you don’t have to look far below the commercial surface to find surprises. A carefully staged shoot for Chanel No. 5 pictures the iconic perfume bottle with a bee on its box. A model wears a pigskin-inspired jacket and skirt combo, carrying a football in front of a backdrop of footballs. I’m not sure what that one’s selling, but it’s part of Ethridge’s dry humor, the football motif repeated within the image (and throughout the book) as if for a particularly dense consumer unclear on what’s being sold; then again, what is being sold?
This studio work is in stark contrast with other images scattered throughout the book, including a series of photos that begin to spell out a peculiar tale. A white Dodge Durango SUV drives down the road and, through the course of an emerging narrative, ends up submerged in a lake and finally retrieved, its pristine whiteness spoiled by nature’s heavy imprint.
The New York Times called Ethridge’s brand of photography, with its sports and supermodel imagery, “bro-conceptualism.” It’s a claim that can fairly be made about a number of contemporary photographers, and a reasonable explanation for James Franco’s art career. But Ethridge isn’t all bro.
His work can be obvious abut also enigmatic. He documents Florida sports culture but also the state’s surreal side, a once potent commercial landscape now in steep decline. The book’s title comes from a chant that parents yelled at their kids playing football, but it’s a sacrifice that also reflect back on his parents’ sacrifice. Ethridge has told interviewers that this work explores his relationship with his mother, an intriguing premise that’s hard to parse from the collected images.
A text at the end of Sacrifice Your Body explains the Dodge Durango narrative, but not completely. The photographer was visiting his mother in South Central Florida, near Lake Okeechobee, when he parked his rental car too close to the lake and watched helplessly as it rolled back into the water. Once he was resigned to paying for the rental, he began to document the white car’s submersion. Ethridge told an interviewer that this work explores the artist’s relationship with his mother, but that enigmatic reading is less evident than the clear tension between nature and commerce, the bodily sacrifice made for the sake of glory and a couple of bucks. Which isn’t very bro at all.