Their beery, blueblood inhibition hangs in the periwinkle dusk. The photograph shows the two DeVos brothers, scions of the Amway multilevel marketing empire, finishing a game of golf with their dad. Two men crouch over a short putt. One nurses a can of low-cal Michelob Ultra. The third stands behind them, his stance strong, his back turned to the camera and to us, draining his bladder in a stream as straight as a titanium shaft. They seem firm and composed, in the flower of youth. And the fourth figure, the caddy saddled with the golf bag in the Everglades heat — who is he? He’s everyone else. He wants to be them, and maybe, if he tugs hard enough on his bootstraps, he will be.
Buck Ellison’s preppy tableau, “Dick, Dan, Doug, The Everglades Club, Palm Beach, Florida, 1990,” from 2019, seems implausible — not because scenes like this don’t play out on the links every day, but because the rich and powerful so rarely reveal themselves to the lens. Which is why the photo, like many of Ellison’s portraits, is staged. But his sets and actors end up unfolding the push and pull of his subjects in ways actual portraits never could. Their raw use of other people, their informal approach to the landscape. Their carriage as if the whole world lived like them. Their shirking from scrutiny.
“It excited me,” Ellison said during an interview in Los Angeles, “this idea that there might actually be a utility to these myths of capturing or exposing” someone’s interior life through photography, “because there is this very powerful group of people that doesn’t allow themselves to be photographed.” Finally, he thought: in a world where a billion photos are made daily, here is something photography is still good for.
“We have all these cartoons of wealthy people in our culture,” he said. Basic class critiques often emphasize splashy but petty outrages, like flying private jets or dining at the French Laundry during a coronavirus surge. But “to say someone inhabits privilege incorrectly implies that you could inhabit it correctly.”
As conversations about race, racism, and inequality surge into the mainstream, Ellison remains one of the only artists describing the myths of white male power from within its walls. His contributions to the 2022 Whitney Biennial, on view through Sept. 5 — three fanciful portraits of Erik Prince, the financier and founder of the private security firm Blackwater — depict a powerful white man at leisure among roomfuls of work focused on abstraction and alterity. (Indeed, they raise the pointed question of what “alterity” would mean in an equitable world.) In 2019, Daniel C. Blight, a lecturer on photography at the University of Brighton, included Ellison in his book “The Image of Whiteness,” and used one of his photos on the cover. “Living Trust,” the artist’s first monograph, won Aperture’s Best First PhotoBook award in 2020. His work was a standout of the Made in L.A. biennial that same year. Ellison will participate in the Lyon biennale this September.
“White people are ghosts,” Blight wrote of Ellison’s work, “invisible to themselves.” And before more accurate, illuminating images of whiteness can circulate, they must be made.
Winningly handsome, athletically built, it’s easy to imagine Ellison as one of his subjects. Our conversation began in a wine bar in Silver Lake. Over a glass of Vinho Verde, he noted that he’s versed enough in social codes to arrange a photo shoot of someone peeing on a country club’s green. (One concession: the “urine” is green tea.) If you must point a finger, says Ellison, point it at him first. “I am a part of this problem and benefiting from these systems,” he says.
Ellison, now 34, grew up among one-percenter Democrats in Marin County, Calif., a milieu where, he says, an oil heiress might protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq without seeing the irony. His mother is an interior designer. “My dad owns thrift stores and rag export companies,” he says. “This is the family business. My great-grandmother, Stella, apparently coined the word ‘thrift store’ to make the sale of used clothing appeal to Protestant virtues.”
He attended Marin Academy, a private school in San Rafael, then majored in art and German literature at Columbia University. Coming out as gay set him somewhat apart. Studying photography at the Städelschule in Frankfurt gave him a critical distance from his native country. It also sharpened his conviction to focus on the contemporary face of American elitism. That face — Democrat or Republican, East Coast or West, new money or old — is as pale-complexioned as the founding fathers.
“What can a privileged white man like Ellison contribute to the art world’s necessary conversations about racism and representation?” says Jim Ganz, the senior curator of photographs at the Getty Museum. “It is an awkward question, but a fair one.” Whatever his intentions, as Ganz puts it, the artist is “exploiting his own privilege.” It is — and should be — an uncomfortable proposition. But Ellison’s mix of sympathy and penitence distinguishes him from portraitists of the ultrawealthy, like Lauren Greenfield or Tina Barney, whose access depends on good manners. “Beneath their slick surfaces, Ellison’s photographs are infested with emblems of systemic racism,” Ganz continues. His “scenes of the pampered lifestyle of the American ruling class [are] designed to leave a bad taste in the mouth.”
Ellison’s early photographs appraise the insignia of white affluence, like the riding crop in the corner of “Untitled (Whip),” 2011, or the blasé poise of the blond in “Hilda,” 2014. A 2013 series captures fresh seafood at a Berlin restaurant, gorgeously arrayed on chipped ice. As with Dutch memento mori, this too is vanity: After he shot his pictures, the fish were thrown away and doused with bleach to deter scavengers. Gradually, Ellison began searching for the deeper realism of fiction. The kitchens in Ellison’s staged interiors, where two pretty girls pick at bell peppers or toned men hand-roll whole wheat pasta, are airy, cool, composed. These could be stock photos if they weren’t pricked with reality — the housekeeper behind the girls, the cook’s bare cheeks behind his apron strings. “They fail as stock photos,” Ellison says. “They fail as pharmaceutical ads, they fail as family snapshots. What you have left is art.” The lie that tells the truth.
In 2017, Ellison sent out Christmas cards. The family on the front — comfortable, smiling — wasn’t his, but the DeVoses, their photo plucked from the internet. “Merry Christmas,” the caption said, “From Our Family To Yours. Dick & Betsy.”
Donald Trump wallowed in the spotlight, but Ellison turned to those brokering power behind the scenes. The artist’s broad interest in United States hegemony came to rest on the Prince clan. Not only was Betsy DeVos (née Prince) the new Secretary of Education; not only had her father-in-law, Richard DeVos, pioneered the quintessential American practice of multilevel marketing; but her brother, Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, had founded the notorious Blackwater security group in 1997. Four Blackwater guards were convicted of murder after a massacre in a Baghdad market, then pardoned by President Trump. Here was real power — evangelical, unaccountable — the kind that didn’t need to brag.
Ellison’s vision of their family portrait, “The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975,” from 2019, depicts the four Princes in a living room. As in a Flemish painting, no detail goes unconsidered: A pearl earring. An eagle finial. The objects near Erik are especially portentous. Ellison positions three brightly bound books by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch prime minister and Christian theologian from the turn of the 19th century, over his shoulder. His wrist drapes on an army drill manual by Baron von Steuben, an 18th-century Prussian officer — one of young Prince’s favorite reads. The foreshadowing is Ellison’s. As children, the Princes are innocent.
Treating a specific family lent his work leverage against the lure of sycophancy or lifestyle porn. Made in L.A. 2020 spanned the Hammer Museum, founded by a petroleum company C.E.O., and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the former Pasadena pile of a railroad baron. Ellison placed a shot of young women playing lacrosse in the Huntington galleries; in a nearby period room, beside John Singleton Copley’s 1783 dynastic portrait “The Western Brothers,” he hung “Untitled (Cufflinks),” 2020: a still life of fresh tennis balls, rejected applications for a wedding notice in The New York Times, a book opened to a painting of aristocratic youths. Here, says Rita Gonzalez, the head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he’d drawn a line from past to present wealth. “The projected fantasies of ‘belonging,’ from the Huntington clan to the subjects of Ellison’s photographs, hit me hard.”
Lauren Mackler, a curator with Made in L.A. 2020, recalls giving tours of the show. “White upper-class viewers would immediately respond to Buck’s images,” she said. “They would often laugh at their humor, and spend time unpacking the symbols, titles, and landscapes that looked familiar. That said, I don’t think Buck’s work is particularly sympathetic to its subjects.” With an endless supply of similar white actors, “he stresses the genericness and replaceability of the characters in the images; their meaninglessness.”
The photographs Ellison contributed to the Whitney Biennial diffuse aggression into Ken-doll eroticism. The portraits imagine Erik, age 34 — Ellison’s age when he shot them — on his Wyoming ranch. It’s November 2003, and the U.S. government has just awarded Blackwater its first contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Played to the hunky hilt by Noah Grant, he indulges in frontier role-play: sighting a rifle; shirtless in a barn flanked by pictures of thoroughbreds; lounging coquettishly on the rug, his finger in a volume of Clausewitz.
The problem, then: It’s ugly to say, but the wealthy aren’t all scapegoats for their wealth. It’s hard, but important, to admit the ways they actually reflect our values — the ways we abhor them, but want to be them. For Ellison, portraying a complex person like Erik Prince means embracing the tension between “wanting to look and then feeling bad that you’ve looked.” For us, Ellison’s portraits of the progeny of white hegemony hold a similar, awful thrill.
So far, he’s received no response from Prince — or any of his subjects — although he has consulted lawyers just in case. “Were I to portray a public figure in a particularly crude or salacious way, that could be grounds for litigation,” he says, “but that’s not interesting to me as an artist. Tenderness has always been the strategy here, not to forgive or absolve, but to get me closer to truth.”