Interview with Ethan Sprague

by Monday, January 30, 2017


Hey Ethan, something is going on at the White House at this time, please try to imagine the perfect shot, the picture of the one who comes in and the one who goes out.
A shot of Obama in the helicopter, leaving the White House lawn, lighting up a blunt and looking down, laughing, as if to say, “That poor fucker”. A shot of Trump, trying to make a quick exit through a White House door, but finding out it’s a broom closet, and all kinds of cleaning products and mops tumbling out before he can close the door, with camera flashes going off all over.

Everyone seems to be afraid of what The Donald will say and do in the next few months, but I have a theory, I think he will try to surprise everyone, not because he believes in being a good president but just for the sake of surprise. What do you think?
I think the big surprise is he will realize how much more money he can make without being president and quit quite early in his term!
You took pictures of humanity for decades, have you ever had the impression that our faces were describing an era? I mean, do you think our facial expressions are influenced by the period in which we live?
I see the history of our country in the older faces of truck drivers and farmers, country waitresses and soda jerks. I see the future of the country in our children. I do think we reflect the times we live in, but more in our clothes and haircuts. From working on farms and in the hundreds of thousands of miles I travelled by truck criss-crossing our country, I learned to approach and speak to people as just another normal worker- I was no longer a spoiled NYC brat. I studied the lines in their faces and the scars on their hands.
All these menial jobs taught me to respect the workers of our country, and I think that my numerous cross country photo road trips of abandoned homes and work places reflect those lost people. I didn’t want the shots to be set pieces, with someone standing, centered in the frame, looking sad or broken- I leave that to the viewer to decide. Obvious is boring to me. I just provide the environment- the frame, if you will. I prefer to let the viewer use a little of their own imagination. I.e.: where did the family go? Why did they leave their clothes hanging in the closet? Why did they leave all those toys on the floor?
Well, if you think so, let’s play a game, in a word, tell me what expression we had in ’80, in ’90, in ’00 and today.
80’s: glam. 90’s: naiivite. 00’s: hope. Today: dread.

And what about your changes in portraying people during all these years? Do you feel you’ve changed approach to photography or is it always the same?
Wether shooting a portrait of a sheep farmer or a fashion model in the 1990’s I have always had the same approach to capture the soul of the subject. I never would try to make someone appear to be someone that they weren’t.  That would be a waste of my time.  I leave that to the big shots who make the big money. I am content to do things my way. Back in the day I might take a female model deep into the Everglades, find an abandoned concrete factory and cover her with dust. It took me 6 hours of scouting to find the location, and 2 hours to get my crew there, and i got my shot. Boom, done. But she was still beautiful.
40 years ago a camera happened into your hands, you clicked, you printed out and you say wow, that’s cool. Tomorrow is your day-off, you look at your camera and … what drives you to go out and take some pictures?
Well, I think that my father was an artist as well, and was killed when he was 35 years old, and never got a chance to really find his style. I see every day as a possible gift to move on and create.
Each fucking artist I interviewed in recent years told me “you must be in trouble with something or someone, to have enough thrust to produce art.” Fine, tell us at least one of your problems.
Oh that’s an easy one! I have been diagnosed with PTSD, major depression, bipolar, anxiety disorder and I forget what else. I have had electro shock therapy which has greatly affected my memory. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing in say, 1994 or 1996, or even where I was living.
Your resume talks about a person unable to stand doing nothing, what are/were you looking for in other lives, a confirmation that you had taken the right path, or is it an attempt to try other avenues?
I was a NYC kid, and I fell into some government money from my father’s death when I turned 18. I bought the record shop I was working in and developed maybe the biggest coke habit it NYC at the time. I lost everything and went cold turkey for 6 months. Tried suicide but it didn’t work, woke up in a mental ward, kept there for 28 days. They didn’t have drug rehab in 1976 really. They wanted me to sign myself into a 2 year program somewhere. My stepfather was a literary agent and I knew he had a writer who had a sheep farm, and I kind of finagled a deal where I would go and work there instead.
Speaking about resumes below are the jobs I’ve worked at during my life. Taking a page from the photographer who in a departure from his usual subject matter in Blow Up, and goes into a shelter to take photos of the residents, I was influenced by that move in a huge way.  I grew up in a literary household  surrounded by intellectuals– I wanted to get to know other segments of the population.
1970: joined navy at 16, kicked out of Navy at 16, dishwasher, short order cook, warehouse worker, pan scraper at Hostess Cup Cake Factory, messenger, record store owner, farm worker, United Van Lines long haul trucker, subpoena server, collection agent, rock band manager of Urban Blight, real estate agent/manager, marijuana smuggler,1984: photography full time, 2001-2007 nightclub bouncer NYC part time.  In recent years I have photographed, often during extensive road trips throughout the US, some people like those I worked with – caught for a moment in their ordinary extraordinary lives. I’m more fascinated by their working places and empty factory buildings, restaurants, church interiors, and their homes, as well as those they were forced to abandon – the untold stories.

People who double my iQ say that at the end of each artistic research there is always beauty. An hidden entity that sometimes turns out in places and in the most unexpected expressions. How many times do you think you have met beauty and captured in your shots?
I used to joke that my photographs contained secret messages from God, but that was just a joke. Strangely enough, there was a time I was living in Miami Beach and I was on Lithium (am on it now, among a bunch of other meds) but the Lithium was just kicking my ass and I was shuffling more than walking and had a hard time just…..surviving. It ocurred to me that, as an assistant, I had always thought the photographers I worked for made their best shots on Polaroid and then tried to replicate them on film. What I did was just skip fil all together. I was just all Polaroid it made it so much easier because I was sick of dealing with Labs and all.  My dictate was make one good photo a day, usually in my studio. Collages, still lifes, etc..I learned to bend the emulsion, create my own secret processes, Polaroid from 3 and 1/4 c 4 and 1/4 up to 8×10”.
If you had to choose one artist, who do you think has had the biggest influence on you?
Joel-Peter Robert Frank Witkin

When you were 13, what did you want to be?
I knew I wanted to be a photographer since I was 10 when my father took me to see the opening of “Blow Up”. I got my first real camera, a Nikkorex, from my father right around then.

Here we go, Proust Questionnaire.

– Your favorite virtue?

– Your main fault?

– Your idea of happiness?
Honestly I can’t really remember being happy, but I look at kids having fun sometimes and think, “I must have been like that at one point”

– If not yourself, who would you be?
A convict.

– How you wish to die?
Shot dead. Although I wish to be cremated, I always thought it would be funny to have a tombstone that reads,” Shot dead, died broke” . Very American Western style, like a cowboy. I think I was named after the John Wayne character in “The Searchers”, whose name was Ethan.

– What is your present state of mind?
Wary that readers will think I am an ashhole.

What’s next for you? What shows or projects do you have planned?
In 1967 my family moved to West 4th and macdougal, just around the corner from the West 4th street Basketball Courts. I had never played any sports at all. I was hypnotized. The first few months I was just glued to the fence and after a while the players would send me across the street to the Deli with a dollar to buy them quarts of Tropicana Orange Juice that cost 99 cents- they let me keep the change.
At that time I was the 2nd shortest kid in my class. But somehow the Vets saw something in me and dragged me onto the court in early mornings and late at night when the lights were on and taught me the fundamentals. I played in the half court at first and as I grew I graduated to the full court, with the older guys pushing to play hard. Sometimes I was matched against the biggest guy on the opposing team, but I learned to use my legs for leverage and got to the point where I was actually picked to play in games. As I got older, I began bringing out my cameras, and shooting action shots and portraits. I finally realized that I needed to be IN the action, and began to use my familiarity with the players to shoot ON the court- I wanted to put the viewer inside the fish tank and not seeing through the glass. A few years ago an intern of mine saw some of these images from the 1980’s and begged me to go back and shoot more, and I started going back every day. When I found out that there was never a documentary made about the most renowned pickup park in the world I decided to make a full length documentary, and I hired an old friend to direct, and we made a real movie that won many awards on the independent film festival circuit. At first I was known as “White boy”, then “Pale Rider”. Now I am known as “Jetson” or just plain “Ethan”. Right now I am looking for a streaming distribution deal. I have never had a show. I am a dog lover but I would kill 12 puppies to get a show. I am the world’s worst self promoter and have been to one Gallery in like, 15 years even though I live in NYC. I am in the planning stages of working on some photograph/dioramas that fit in fishtanks.

Ethan on Hyde

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