The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975,” 2019.Photographs by Buck Ellison
It’s the cut of the jacket that’s the dead giveaway. The graceful arc it draws above the woman’s waistline looks architecturally engineered, its hourglass effect enhanced by tastefully wide peaked lapels. The fabric, too, looks sumptuous. Cashmere? Probably. There’s nothing flashy about the gray-and-beige-clad subject of Buck Ellison’s “Mama” (2016), with her pulled-back hair and her prim manicure, but she radiates an air of wealth quietly, like the footfall of a Stubbs & Wootton slipper on a plush Persian carpet. No doubt somewhere in the pages of Emily Post’s “Etiquette” it says: new money shouts, old money whispers.
You could say that the lives and tastes of so-called old money—old, that is, in the American sense—are the subject of Ellison’s staged photographic tableaux and cheeky, deadpan still-lifes. The markers we’ve come to associate with a particular brand of buttoned-up, Ivy League, East Coast Waspish wealth are omnipresent. His subjects seem to have stepped out of the pages of a J. Crew catalogue, and look as though they probably have names like Bunny and Tripp. They are white and often blond and are situated among gleaming Land Rovers, rolling golf courses, and pristine marble kitchens. The photographs appear, in other words, to be a part of the robust artistic tradition of depictions of the beneficiaries of fabulous dynastic wealth, with the Vineyard Vines fleece taking the place of baroquely ruffled lace and velvet as a mark of distinction. And they would be, if only his subjects were who they seem to be.
Ellison, who is based in Los Angeles, almost exclusively hires local actors and models to play the ersatz bluebloods who populate his pictures, and he inserts them into rigorously stage-managed scenarios that he devises beforehand. (A notable exception to the rule is the series of photographs he made of a women’s lacrosse game between the tony Connecticut prep schools Taft and Hotchkiss, whose players exude a martial intensity that will no doubt serve them well in the corporate boardrooms and white-shoe law firms of their futures.) This contrivance separates Ellison from other run-of-the-mill society portraitists and life-style photographers, as well as from the upper-crust chronicler Tina Barney, with whom Ellison is often superficially compared. Ellison goads us to contemplate not just the existence of an American ruling class, with its idiosyncratic and easily satirizable mores and style codes, but the invisible lineaments of wealth, power, and race that undergird its existence.
It’s often been pointed out that, in our current socioeconomic landscape, the rich are no longer simply rich. They are preposterously rich, incomprehensibly rich, possibly even catastrophically rich. Thomas Piketty, the famed French economist, made a memorable observation about this state of affairs in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014), eerily presaging our paranoid, conspiracy-addled age. “For millions of people,” he wrote, “ ‘wealth’ amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.”