Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Buck Ellison: Living Trust  

Ellison’s first monograph seeks to visualise what lies behind the manicured imagery that the American ultra-wealthy wish to be perceived by
Feature, British Journal of Photography — Endurance and Exhaustion: Faces on the Frontline, Issue 7896 — June 2020  

In 2020, Oxfam released its annual report ahead of the World Economic Forum, revealing that the world’s 2153 billionaires, collectively have more wealth than 60 per cent of the planet’s population. Meanwhile, a different poll suggested people would take over 1.4 trillion photographs that same year – a figure, which Covid-19 will likely impact, but you get the idea. “We live in this over-photographed world, yet there is a whole class of people, the ultra-wealthy, who, for the most part disclose only what they want,” says Buck Ellison, ahead of the release of his first monograph Living Trust, published by Loose Joints. “The rest of their lives are completely opaque to us”.

The Sackler family is a perfect example. They are one of the wealthiest in the US, with an estimated fortune of $13 billion. Until recently, they were best-known for their philanthropic activities – indeed, a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is named after them. A large part of that fortune, however, derives from Purdue Pharma, the purveyor of OxyContin, which the company developed in 1996. The long-lasting narcotic, which is formidably addictive, fed, and continues to feed, the US’ opioid crisis. The Sacklers’ connection to the privately-owned company remained obscure for decades – until it didn’t. “They have a team: they have lawyers and accountants, they have foundations,” says Ellison. “They presented an image to the public that they wanted people to see — however, there was more going on there”.

Living Trust employs the manicured imagery associated with the ultra-wealthy, and recasts it in a new light: as a symbol of the artificiality and self-censorship inherent in how this group represents itself. Eight chapters, loosely referencing aspects of the lives of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) – also known as white, wealthy, Americans – divide the publication: ‘Daughters’; ‘Still Lifes’; ‘College Preparatory Schools, San Francisco Bay Area, California’; ‘Sierra, Gymnastics Routine’; ‘Protestant Suite’; ‘Tender Option’; ‘Performance Fleece’; ‘Modesty’ and ‘Christmas Card’.

The photographs are meticulously researched. Many are staged – populated by paid models and actors cast from LA’s infinite pools of ‘talent’. “You have this enormous apparatus available to you,” explains Buck, “and it became important to me, conceptually too, for the relationship to be transactional: I was hiring their expertise”. A series of young girls playing lacrosse – all white, some with long, braided hair – transition into a sequence of lurid still lives – spirals of tangerine peel on a blue background; fennel scattered across pages. Later, images of raw seafood – tiers of fish and bursts of octopuses – progress into those of a moneyed, white American family. The list goes on.

An even darker strand of inquiry weaves through the work, exploring how in a world where the realms of public and private increasingly blend, enough money can still enforce the division between them. “Privacy is a luxury; it can be expensive to get and maintain, but we know it’s out there,” writes the American poet Lucy Ives, in one of three essays that punctuate the book. “One of the ways we know this is on account of the photographic images that we know we do not have.”

The section ‘Tender Option’ explores this. It comprises a series of images devoted to the current, and deeply unpopular, US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her brother Erik Prince – the founder of the world’s most infamous private security company, Blackwater Security Consulting (now Academi). “She is like a Thatcher-esque figure, from a billionaire family, and her brother is like a war criminal,” says Ellison.

“The family has contributed insane amounts of money to shadowing Republican politics”. In 2017, during her confirmation hearing, DeVos, who also positions herself as a wealthy philanthropist, reluctantly revealed that over the years, her family had contributed around $200 million to the Republican Party. During her time in office, DeVos has worked to dismantle the US’s public school system, which supports federally-funded, free primary and secondary institutions. In the case of public universities – markedly cheaper than their private counterparts – she promotes their privatisation. Meanwhile her brother is implicated in the Nisour Square massacre in 2007, when Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20, while escorting a US embassy convoy.

Despite their notoriety, when Ellison searched online for childhood and family images of DeVos, he found little. Determined to visualise the family’s history, the photographer delved deep into their backgrounds, casting actors to portray them. In the image, The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975 (2019), four blond children – three girls, one plays a 19-year-old DeVos, and one boy – inhabit a 1970s-era living room, modestly decorated with mahogany furnishings, books, and two unexceptional paintings, to reflect the strict Calvinism of DeVos’ family growing up. Erik with Kitty, Blackwater Training Center, Moyock, North Carolina, 1998 (2019) depicts Erik Prince sporting a khaki ensemble, with a small kitten nestled into his bulletproof vest. Dick and Betsy, The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, Texas, 1984 (2019), a pregnant DeVos growls down the telephone.

In some respects, the images are light and humorous. But, they also expose how visual ambiguity is possible for those who can afford it – a frightening reality with myriad of negative implications. As Ives so aptly describes it, “these are strategic images. Ellison’s photographs demonstrate the expensive and increasingly fugitive privacy that attends contemporary democratic society. And they show that the display of luxury, far from being a dead giveaway for the location and machinations of power, is a bluff.”