What is it about photography that you love?
I love how photography can elicit empathy, and as a photographer I’m most excited to make work that engages with that notion on some level. I also love how photography often gives me an opportunity to talk and learn about new things beyond photography, and that’s usually an exciting proposition.
Last Summer is a very nostalgic series. Why do you capture summer moments?
Summer is a great time of year. I think there’s something interesting about how everyone in this country experiences summer regardless of where they live. There are many cultural aspects that make up summer. In Minnesota, the fact that it’s winter for a long time makes summer an especially desirable time of the year. Last Summer came about because summer is almost always too short. The best things don’t last as long as you want them to. I think the knowledge of brevity, or temporalness, is a part of what makes us care about anything. With summer, part of the beauty of it is the poignancy of being aware that it won’t last.
Where were these images taken?
They’re taken all over the more northern United States. It wasn’t entirely intentional, but part of my process is about moving around, observing, and then editing. In my life I tend to gravitate towards northern climates, so the majority of pictures are in those places. Of course, living in Minnesota means that the majority of photographs were made nearby.
Who were the subjects? Family or strangers?
Both! Some are people I know; others are strangers. Although, the pictures aren’t about who the people are. They are about what the people are doing in the pictures. I like when the people are immersed in activity or immersed the beauty of where they are. For example, I love the image of people looking off into the distance.
When you think back on the summers you experienced as a child, what comes to mind?
School’s out and it’s finally summer. It’s very exciting. It’s a sense of freedom, an open schedule, and it’s sunny out much longer. You can go to the beach, cook and eat outside, and swim, all of which make me happy.
You also have a series of trees. Was it a side project or did you specifically photograph trees out of a personal interest?
I happen to have taken a lot of pictures of trees over the past few years. Trees wasn’t really a planned project, but it’s also not a spinoff. The collection of images just sort of happened as I realized that I had a lot of these pictures. I take a lot of walks and the series was driven by the idea of walking through and observing my surroundings. I think that some trees appear to have different personalities, and I can also see how the trees change over time. I never really know what I will do with my photographs of trees.
In your opinion, when are trees most beautiful?
I think trees are more beautiful as you watch them change with the seasons than they are during one particular season.
Contrarily, for Faces, you have screenshots and other forms of people’s faces. How did this concept materialize?
Some are screenshots, some are photographs of the TV, and some are traditional portraits. I was interested in the idea of empathy and how to make a portrait that you can empathize with. For instance, I wondered where does empathy come from in a portrait. Is it the relationship between my subjects and I? It is rooted in their expressions? Or in formal elements like light and color? Eventually, the main question that I had was “how much does my interaction with a subject, whether it is strong or somewhere in between, matter?” After making several different kinds of portraits, I then chose the images that seemed to have a more psychological representation of these faces.
But why screenshots? These are more unconventional methods of capturing a portrait.
It’s about how even though there isn’t any physical interaction, there is still the possibility for emotion and a connection. When I look at the screen and see people’s faces, I’m aiming to capture something that might convey an emotion. I crop the images so that you don’t even know what context the person is in, and you don’t need to know. What the face tells you is what I’m interested in with the series.
Why did you photograph athletes?
In a really basic sense I started photographing athletes because I like and appreciate watching sports. Visually, I can be interested and entertained by watching how people move during physical activity for a long time. This led me to want to make portraits of these people. I thought there was something poetic about making still portraits of very active people. When I was making the portraits I was really interested in this idea of trying to capture a psychological portrait; and I think the stillness and slowness of my process lends itself to making more psychological images. I thought that by photographing athletes at rest after they had exercised that the portraits would have a context that would give meaning and understanding to the psychological intensity I was seeking in the portraits. I think in the future I’d like to revisit photographing athletes in a different way. I’m not sure that this project is entirely resolved.
Who would you like to photograph?
Maybe the next person I meet? I’m not interested in celebrities.
What concert do you hope to listen to live?
Actually, I don’t really ever listen to music. I’ve only ever been to one legitimate concert!
What’s your favorite sports team?
I’m really obsessed with the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team.
Who’s your favorite player?
Andrew Wiggins. He played for Kansas last year and now plays professionally for Minnesota. To me, it’s kind of perfect that he ended up here.
What food must everyone try when they visit Minnesota?
A “Jucy Lucy”, which is a burger that has pool of cheese inside the patty. When you bite into it, it’s like hot molten lava coming out of the burger. Matt’s has the original and best version.
You mentioned you enjoy walks and hikes. What are the most scenic walks you’ve taken to date?
Hiking around the Grand Tetons is amazing. Some of my Last Summer photographs are from there. Having said that, I also really enjoy walking around my neighborhood even though most people wouldn’t describe it as scenic.
What career path might you have pursued if you weren’t a photographer?
I have no idea. I’d probably do something that was still visual and creative to some extent.
What artists and photo series do you enjoy?
When I’m stuck, I often come back to William Eggleston, Katy Grannan, Paul Graham, Rineke Dijkstra, Mark Steinmetz, Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood, and Paul Pfeiffer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Where do you hope to travel next?
I would love to drive around all of the Great Lakes. In the winter I often dream about traveling to the southwest, but I never end up going. Maybe this is the year it happens.
What’s your drink of choice?
Beer. Currently I really enjoy going to the NE Yacht Club in Minneapolis and getting a pitcher of Busch for $7. It’s a great deal.
Define beauty in your own words.
I’m not sure that it’s definable. I know that sounds like a cop-out for an answer, but I’d rather think about beauty as something that can change. For me, beauty is not consistent. That’s one reason why I love photography: time-and-time again, you can take a photo of something that’s not typically beautiful, but the light or detail in a photograph can make it beautiful. It’s a tension that challenges a normal sense of beauty.
For more of Ethan’s work, check out his website.