Purple Magazine
— The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

bombshell ethan james green

BOMBSHELL
ETHAN JAMES GREEN

interview by olivier zahm photography by ethan james green

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re working on a new book, right?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes. For about a year now, I’ve been working on this project called Bombshell. My first book — Young New York, with Aperture — came out in 2019. So, it’s been a while. I got fully absorbed with doing fashion work. I started getting to a point where I needed another personal project, but, for me, it’s hard to start a personal project if it feels forced. What I had with my first body of work felt so effortless — there was that rush after every picture to photograph the next person and to know who would work for the project and to be constantly looking for people for it.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did this new book project start?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — One of my friends, the hairstylist Lucas Wilson, had asked me if we could do a play day with hair with our common friend, the transgender model Marcs Goldberg. So, we photographed her at my studio, and it was very sexy. She brought flowers from the flower market that she was turning into lingerie or using to cover herself or to cast shadows. We were just experimenting — there wasn’t any purpose, which made it really freeing. As the day went on, we kept on joking around, being like: “Bombshell. Oh, she’s bombshell.” It ended with me talking with Lucas and being like

“Let’s do another book of our friends in the same way. Let’s take the wigs out and have people bring lingerie. Let’s play around with people being sexy again.”

So, we started doing this project in my studio, and the word spread. I had friends coming in. And it’s a lot of the same people who I photographed before, who have remained my friends over the years.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell us more about Marcs, who was on the cover of your first book, Young New York.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — She’s one of my best friends. I’ve photographed her many times, probably more than any other person.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM—Your first book was, what, five years ago?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — It came out before Covid, in 2019, but the pictures ranged from 2014 to 2018.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s a historical gap, in the sense that this past decade experienced a sexual revolution, in a way.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — With your photography, you created an iconography around this gender-free community. Now, almost 10 years later, it’s not yet fully established, but it’s definitely part of the cultural landscape. Do your models feel more comfortable today in front of your camera — or more recognized?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes, I think it’s a different moment. When I was doing my book, everyone was very young and coming to the city at different moments. It’s a different way of thinking about it. There’s more nudity, it’s sexier, but it almost feels like they’re less delicate. The project just kind of happened. I was three portraits in, and I was like, “This is the new book project.”

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a more conscious project, so it’s maybe more difficult to be as spontaneous?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes. After finishing my first book, I was 100% shooting fashion work all the time. And there was no space for the personal. So, I was going from always having to fight for a picture to, all of a sudden, shooting this project where there’s a great flow and the excitement to do the next thing, where no one’s telling me what to do, or not do.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it difficult to maintain integrity in the fashion world? Because you’ve been a rising star.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — You have to be ready to fight. There have been many moments when maybe I’ve ruined relationships because I stand so hard on something.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — You burn the bridge.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — I try not to burn bridges, but there are moments when it’s like: “Okay, this is getting twisted and not going to represent who I am.” And because I love fashion so much, there have been moments when I haven’t realized that I’ve compromised. So, this new book awakened me to bring it back to my initial approach.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s based on nudity?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — If “bombshell” means wearing a bodysuit or a big coat, and you don’t see any of their body, then that is “bombshell” to them. The subject comes with whatever styling they feel — they bring their own clothes, which keeps it very Young New York. People bring lingerie or flowers, whatever “bombshell” is to them. We have three different hairstylists — Lucas Wilson, Jimmy Paul, and Sonny Molina. They’ll sit in the hair chair, talk about who they are, what they want. It’s a fluid and fun process. Often the subject and the hairstylists build the hair together. But then the subject is like: “I want to wear this outfit,” or “I brought this bra,” or “Oh, I’ll go topless.” And I document it.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — All black and white photography, basically?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes, all black and white.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — To me, you’re expanding a history of photography in New York that goes from Nan Goldin to Jack Pierson to David Armstrong, who contributed to Purple and was a friend of mine. I know you worked with David. He photographed you for a Calvin Klein campaign, and then you became friends. Tell me about your relationship with him — because it’s good to remember this photographer who left us too soon.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes, David was huge for me. I met him in 2008 or 2009. He shot me when I was 18 or 19. I had just moved to New York, and he photographed me for his book 615 Jefferson Avenue. He tied a Victorian infant’s dress around my neck. I was terrified because I had never really interacted with gay people before. I knew that I was gay, but when I met David, I had never met anyone who was gay that I wanted to be like. One of the first things I said to him was: “Oh, I just moved to New York to model because I want to be a fashion photographer. I’m doing this instead of college.” Right away, he said, “Well, if you want, you can shoot in my house whenever you want.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” I didn’t for many years because even though I was shooting a lot as a kid, when I moved to New York and was working with photographers and lights and big productions, I felt like I wasn’t able to do a picture that would match up.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you were shooting in Michigan. What kind of camera did you use at the time?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — I used my family’s vacation point-and-shoot digital camera. I would photograph myself, my friends, my family. We were always doing photo shoots.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — A digital camera?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yeah. I’m all digital. No film. I’ll do Polaroids for fun sometimes. I owe David all that.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — David was already shooting digital at the time, around 2010?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — When I met him, he was shooting digital. A good amount of pictures in his book 615 Jefferson Avenue are digital, and all the work when I was working for him was digital. When I was assisting him, I used a Canon 5D Mark II when it first came out, and everyone was like, “This is the camera, it does video, it does raw.” I was able to get one of those, and I started doing pictures. And then I went to Tokyo to model because that was the one place I could make money. And there is a great used-camera store where everything is in perfect condition. I would finish the trip, get the cash from the agency, and I’d go straight to this camera store. So, I got a Hasselblad.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — A serious middle-format film camera!

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — I got back to New York, and I told David: “Guess what? I got a Hasselblad in Japan.” He said: “Why? Film’s a dead end. Don’t waste your time.” And I held onto that and never shot with that camera. I tried it once, and then I lent it to someone, and they never gave it back. I took it as a sign that I am meant to shoot digital.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you prefer to shoot digital?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — For some people, film is beautiful, and they love it, and I get it. For me, there are new digital cameras that can do new things all the time. For a while, digital was really ugly. But now people are using that aesthetic: they love the crunchy look or a Blackberry picture. I’d rather continue using digital as it evolves, and my work can evolve with it. But what David said stuck with me. He was very pro digital, which you wouldn’t think.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — No. I remember him shooting for Purple in digital, but I thought he originally started with film.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Oh, he did. There were a lot of big photographers, especially in fashion — you see their work leading up to the digital moment. And then there’s that big trip where the light they were using or the approach doesn’t translate digitally. But there was something about David’s use of light. In his book 615 Jefferson Avenue, you can’t differentiate the analog from the digital images. David was a master — he knew how to use light, and he understood it digitally in a great way.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Juergen Teller, as an example, jumped from film to digital with no problem.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — And in the last 30 years, we saw the switching moment toward a new technology in photography. But for a true artist like you, with a vision, digital or film doesn’t really make the difference.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes. But I’m intimidated by film, it’s too complicated. I just want to take the picture, know I got it, and move on.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were David Armstrong and you ever lovers or just friends?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — No, David referred to himself as my cranky grandmother. He believed in me even before he saw any of my pictures. He told me that he saw himself in me. When I finally took David up on the offer to shoot in his house, I did a V Man digital editorial. I was editing the first picture while the model was changing. And David walked in and was like, “Ethan, doll, that’s divine.” He got so excited, and after that, I asked him, “Can I work for you?” And he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — David Armstrong was very supportive and believed in you so much. And he was right!

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — He was very supportive. He would tell me things like, “Ethan, you’re going to be one of the top.” And he’d give constructive criticism and wouldn’t hold back. I remember I did this digital story for a magazine, one of my first stories. And it was a nightmare — it was just bad. He came out and was like: “Ethan, I saw this story. Never again, never again.” He was an incredible mentor. He never saw my first book, Young New York, which is heartbreaking, or any of the pictures that I do now of my friends, anything queer-community black and white.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are there any other photographers who influenced you?

THAN JAMES GREEN — It’s like the greatest hits, like Steven Meisel. His work is a fashion picture, but there’s complexity to it. There’s a layer that I haven’t seen any other photographer be able to capture. He was an evil genius. He’s almost removed — it’s an alien view. Richard Avedon, in many ways, was the blueprint for Meisel. It’s work that’s straightforward, it’s beautiful. Irving Penn I love, and Diane Arbus really impacted me, too.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Diane Arbus is the true master of American photography!

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — When I started taking portraits in the park, I wanted my pictures to look like hers. I couldn’t shoot like her, but there was an aesthetic, the grittiness, that I really appreciated, the New York part of it. The black and white, that light, all of it. But the approach to the person was what I couldn’t mimic— it, didn’t feel right.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re not influenced by photographers from the ’90s, aside from Steven Meisel?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — I remember seeing my first Juergen story, and I was obsessed. But there’s something about Avedon, Penn, and Meisel… With Meisel’s work, I was always eager to know what was coming next, and it wasn’t going to be the same as what I had seen before. When you look at his work, you see why it’s his work, but at the same time he’s jumping around, the light is different. It’s an all-black-and-white story, it’s in the studio, it’s a location. Maybe it’s the same model three stories in a row, but she’s transformed every time into a different character. For me, that’s the highest level of fashion work you can do. Anything in between can be beautiful, it can be inspiring, but that for me is the equation.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you meet Meisel?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — He shot me four or five times. I was on the cover of Italian Vogue.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was a glorious time for Italian Vogue. Do you still believe in the importance of magazines for photography?

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — Yes. Magazines are essential to fashion, even though they are suffering right now.

I think Instagram’s depressing. There’s not a good place for pictures to land because a lot of magazines have become industry only. And fashion has turned into pop culture, whereas when I was a kid, it was not.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — I agree.

ETHAN JAMES GREEN — And as a photographer now, there’s this balance of like: “Do you want your work to be seen? What has to happen to your pictures in order to be seen? Is it better to stick to your guns and for it not to be seen or understood by a lot of people?”

END

 

[Table of contents]

The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

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