George Etheredge, Living Apart

JTF (just the facts): Published by ROMAN NVMERALS BOOKS in 2019 (here). Softcover, 16 pages, with 12 color photographs. Includes a short text by the artist. Design by Brian Berding. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: ROMAN NVMERALS is a small New York City based publisher, with a focus on small run photography publications, many of them following a similar 16-page model. Founded in 2015 by David La Spina and Michael Vahrenwald, the imprint has released many notable publications, including selected works by Darin Mickey, Stephen Shore, Laura Letinsky, Matthew Connors, and Gus Powell, just to name a few. And all of their releases are printed locally using domestic paper.

Their most recent publication features the work of NY-based photographer George Etheredge, and is titled Living Apart. This body of work, originally commissioned by ProPublica, investigates a housing program in NYC which was established to give mentally ill residents more independence, and a better life, by moving them from adult homes and other institutions into subsidized private apartments. It was supposed to be a national model for supporting the rights of the mentally ill, but the reality is that many of these mentally unstable people were not ready to live on their own without assistance. Through this program, hundreds of people were moved into apartments, but the outcome of this change was not tracked until recently. Etheredge’s photographs take a closer look at what was really taking place, and visualize how the program often failed the people it was designed to help.

Living Apart is a zine that follows the 16-page model and includes 12 photographs. A side-view photograph of a man eating in a kitchen takes up both front and back cover. It is surrounded by a bright yellow border. The back cover, with the title and artist’s name, seems to represent the publication, yet the narrative reads in traditional left to right direction. Inside, there is a list of detailed captions, and the zine opens with an essay by Etheredge explaining the project and sharing his encounter with Abraham Clemente, one of the people he met while working on the project. 

Clemente suffers from schizophrenia, yet the state decided he was able to live on his own and he was moved to a subsidized apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. When Etheredge visited him, the water was running in both the shower and sink, because Clemente believed it “gave him oxygen.” Gnats and cockroaches had infested the entire apartment, the toilet was clogged, and feces was on the carpet and among scattered clothes. Disoriented, Clemente talked to spoons and called a fan his best friend. 

The photograph adjacent to the essay shows Clemente in bed, according to the caption; it looks like he lies on a bunch of blankets and towels, and there are pieces of clothes, cardboard, an air conditioner, a plastic bottle, newspapers, and plastic bags cobbled together all directions. The next image shows a rotting cantaloupe left on the floor, nestled between a carpet and some faux fur. Another image captures a half-eaten piece of white sponge cake covered with insects and flies. Even with a bouquet of flowers in a vegetable oil bottle trying to create a little optimism, it is obvious that Clemente’s living environment is dangerously unhealthy.     

One spread adds portraits of two people who were care coordinators in the project. Antonio McCoy is photographed in his home sitting on a bed, wearing a shirt and a tie. He says that nonprofit he worked for was “more interested in making money than in providing quality care for its clients.” Another sequence of photographs add the story of Nestor Bunch; before moving to a subsidized apartment, he spent most of his life under some sort of supervision. A portrait depicts him in a green jersey with tousled hair, as he looks right back at us with his arms awkwardly crossed. One day he was found at his apartment with multiple injuries, but no investigation was conducted. The last photograph symbolizes the tragedy of the situation; it shows the stairs in Bunch’s apartment, where he found one of his roommates dead.

Living Apart is a modest publication that combines thoughtful writing and intimate photographs to bring attention to a social problem that many of us have overlooked. While such projects run the risk of exploitation or struggle with imbalances of power between photographer and subject, Etheredge consistently addresses Clemente and the others with compassion and empathy. His publication is a successful example of how the zine format can be effectively used to share a small project with a much wider audience. 

Collector’s POV: George Etheredge does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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