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Book Review: Shelter Island

Book Review Shelter Island By Roe Ethridge Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot I’ve been to Shelter Island — it’s an ink-splotch shaped piece of land between the forks of Eastern Long Island, accessible by car ferry. My husband’s parents used to rent a house there in the summer. The perils of aging and the passing of my mother-in-law ended this tradition in 2013.
Shelter Island. By Roe Ethridge. Mack, 2016.
Shelter Island
Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot

Shelter Island
Photographs by Roe Ethridge
Mack, London, England, 2016. In english. 32 pp., 15 color illustrations, 9¼x13¼".

I’ve been to Shelter Island — it’s an ink-splotch shaped piece of land between the forks of Eastern Long Island, accessible by car ferry. My husband’s parents used to rent a house there in the summer. The perils of aging and the passing of my mother-in-law ended this tradition in 2013.

When I first visited over a decade ago, when my husband was my boyfriend, I learned to drink rosé wine on a porch in the luminous rosé colors of sunset; I walked through the golf course to get ice cream at the local ice cream shop; I would visit the hardware store because it was still kind of funky and I would marvel at its down-home staying power — so many people on Shelter Island were rich and fashionable, cruising in on their big boats, puddle-jumper planes, and nice cars. There was good food, good wine, and expensive clothes at your fingertips if you had the money. This all trickled in from the wealthy urban places from which the visitors came, of course, like Manhattan. I miss some of these things, and not others.

Shelter Island. By Roe Ethridge. Mack, 2016.

I hoped I might get a whiff of this complex emotional pull and repulsion in the pages of Roe Ethridge’s book Shelter Island, and I very much do. It’s a thin book, 32 pages with 15 color plates, which, after just a few images, began to depress me. The feeling settled in as I realized I was looking at a photograph of a bouquet of dead flowers.

According to an article in AnOther magazine and the press release for the corresponding Shelter Island show in Brussels, Ethridge also feels a malaise in these images — an end-of-summer kind of sadness. He’s been going to Shelter Island with his wife and two kids for a few years, every year renting “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.” The family that rents to them could rightly stand in for them in the future — their children are grown, perhaps no longer the age that you can just drag along for a summer vacation on Shelter Island. Ethridge digs out a stack of cases of empty Coca Cola bottles from their garage to photograph. “It’s so American,” he says in AnOther magazine. “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.” Perhaps this is why the font of Shelter Island — which looks to be Cooper Black — is straight from the 1970s, a time when Ethridge would have been the age of his kids. It’s the font of ‘70s iron-on lettering, the Tootsie Roll logo, The Doors’ album L.A. Woman, and the Bob Newhart Show. This font puts me in the mind of someone for whom the end-of-summer actually has significance — a kid on her way back to grade school.

Shelter Island. By Roe Ethridge. Mack, 2016.

The pages of Shelter Island are full of sidelong glances that caress all endings — the end of summer, the end of the day, the end of a bouquet of flowers, the end of a phone battery (as there are screenshots made on Ethridge’s phone by his daughter as well). Towards the end of the book Ethridge includes a photo of his own bearded and sun-tanned face. He’s unreadable — with a gaze that could devolve into tears or explode into laughter — perhaps in the midst of a moment of realization, or expectation. The next two pages, the last of the book, show a kite submerged in water, upside-down—completely depressing — pierced by hundreds of tiny cluster-reflections of the sun dancing across waves like a mean bully pointing fingers at you on the first day back to school.

Shelter Island. By Roe Ethridge. Mack, 2016.

Along with the images of his wife, his children, plants, a shell, and things found in the kit-house garage, Ethridge interrupts the book with an image of Pamela Anderson eating grapes. This kind of insertion is an oft-discussed element of Ethridge’s practice: his juxtaposition of random images, sometimes butting his commercial work up alongside non-commercial work. In a press release for his exhibition Rockaway Redux in 2008, for instance, Ethridge explained it this way: “One of the reasons I’ve been so interested in this kind of displaced, broad scope approach is an effort to embrace the arbitrariness of the image and image making. For me serendipity and intention are both necessary. Another reason for the wild style is the dread of conclusiveness. The dread of finitude. This work is against death and finality. No, that's too hyperbolic, let's say it’s about working in the service of the image and getting my kicks too.”

The book form caters to this kind of giddy sequencing. Ethridge cannot be entirely swept away by malaise here; his work is never done. Pam reminds us that Ethridge is not heading back to school — but back to a highly successful career as a professional photographer in New York who makes art of his work and can afford to summer in Shelter Island.

Shelter Island. By Roe Ethridge. Mack, 2016.

I feel about this book the way I do about the place — it’s a place for those want to escape the “real world” in summertime — but who also never, really, want to escape that world. But perhaps Ethridge is thinking ahead — maybe this book with covers depicting twin red suns dipping toward the horizon is a meditation on the sunset of a lifestyle. In a 2014 interview in Sleek Magazine, he says “There’s only so much time though. And I think most people agree that the social aspects of New York are pretty exhausting. You have to be a very good editor of your time.” And so he tries to get away. But will he really ever?—SARAH BAY GACHOT

SARAH BAY GACHOT is a writer and piñata-maker. She is currently at work on a book about the artist Robert Cumming and her publications include Aperture magazineArtSlantThe PhotoBook ReviewThe Daily Beast, and The Art Book Review. Her piñatas have been exhibited and then destroyed at the Hammer Museum, REDCAT, Machine Project, Human Resources LA, and Pomona College, among other places. She also co-hosts the monthly event Hyperience, a free, ongoing series of artist residencies and live collaborative events. Sarah lives in Los Angeles.

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