Buck Ellison, Living Trust

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Loose Joints (here). Clothbound embossed hardcover, 25×32 cm, 132 pages, with 60 color plates. Includes texts by Lucy Ives, Orit Gat, and Brooke Harrington. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Like an executive who looks you square in the eye while offering a firm handshake, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust projects a solid first impression. The handsome book emerges from its cellophane like an Oxford shirt, smartly understated. The reader can barely wait to try it on, but first one must take moment to admire the cover, built of sturdy textured cloth in a muted shade of greymatter pink. “Buck Ellison, Living Trust” states the title in mock-Victorian typeface, but not in a showy way. Instead the words are tucked discreetly into the upper corner, as if heading a formal dinner invitation. Just inside, emerald green endpapers signal old money.

Everything looks respectable at first glance. But after flipping the book over, cracks appear in the facade. The table of contents is laid out as a run-on menu on the back cover, top-weighted (a hint of things to come), in the same size and typeface as the title. Daughters; Still Lifes; College Preparatory Schools, San Francisco Bay Area, California; Sierra, Gymnastics Routine; Protestant Suite; Tender Option; Performance Fleece; Modesty; Christmas Car… Hold on. Performance Fleece? Protestant Suite? College Preparatory Schools? These phrases hint at wealthy trappings, but their deadpan listing is sardonic. What’s going on here? Returning to the front cover the reader realizes that Living Trust is a play on words, a double entendre referencing both a tax-shelter and domestic fidelity. Even the author’s name seems in on the joke. Buck Ellison. Could any invented moniker sound more aristocratic?

The young Buck Ellison is in fact a real person, and hegemony is his subject. But he has come to bury the elite, not to praise them. Ellison views America’s structural inequities with disdain, a perspective which will win most readers over immediately. One could hardly choose a softer target, or one more topical in light of recent cultural awakenings. The aristocracy has long been a topic of fascination among the less fortunate, resented and aspired to in equal measure. So it’s no surprise Ellison has found fertile territory in its assured complacency and dated mannerisms, which he has skewered with zest. Living Trust might be considered a long-overdue counterpart to the Jacob Riis classic, a tale describing “How The Other Half Lives”, but this time aimed squarely up the social ladder rather than downward, and with greater artistic liberties taken. 

For Ellison this is admittedly familiar territory. “I wouldn’t be able to make my critiques were I not raised in the world I’m examining,” he says. During an idyllic childhood in Marin county, followed by polishing stints at Columbia and HFBK Frankfurt, he gained first-hand experience with white privilege. It didn’t sit well, but converting his sentiments into a photo project proved tricky. “I wanted to take a formal portrait of my family,” he explained in a recent interview. “I have two brothers, one sister, nieces and nephews, my parents – but they weren’t interested. So I cast everybody with professional models. That way of working really opened things up for me.”

Applying this method to various wealthy microcosms, Ellison wound up with a final version of Living Trust comprised largely of staged recreations, with some digitally composites and straight photos added for good measure. His images offer biting social commentary, but in a somewhat plasticized vehicle. Constructed according to Ellison’s exact specifications, Living Trust exudes the controlled, malleable role play of his adopted home, Los Angeles. “An anthropology of WASP America,” exclaims Loose Joints. But in fact it is closer to imagination than scientific method. 

In this respect Ellison differs from others who have photographed the wealthy. Predecessors like Slim Aarons, Martin Parr, Tina Barney, and Lauren Greenfield have all blazed trails here, but they’ve generally documented the world as found. Ellison faced resistance in this approach, not only from his immediate family but further afield. The upper class tends to be media-savvy, and guards its public image carefully. To use Ellison’s less judicious interpretation, “a certain segment of white America seems very invested in covering its tracks….What we’re looking at is a larger global crisis of inequality, and we all know that, yet we have very little information about what’s going on for like the top 0.01 per cent. There’s an enormous amount of opacity there.”

A prime example is Michigan’s Prince-DeVos family, noteworthy for sibling power brokers Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education) and her brother Erik Prince (founding CEO of Blackwater). For such a prominent family, there is slim public record of any personal photographs. So Ellison invented one from whole cloth. His series Tender Options boasts one audacious tableau after another. The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975 imagines the Prince scions posing blissfully in their cozy study, an image oozing so much white privilege it earned the cover of last year’s The Image Of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography And Reconciliation. If the Prince children aren’t the very essence of oblivious beatitude, then surely a subsequent photo is. In Dick, Don, Doug, The Everglades Club, Palm Beach, Florida, 1990, preppie golfers spend a warm evening drinking beers and pissing on the green with impunity. The world is their oyster and they know it. Another image envisions a young Erik Prince holding a kitten against his military garb, followed by a plate of stamps bearing the likeness of George H.W. Bush, perhaps the gold standard for blue blood mediocrity. WASP America’s paucity of star power creates an irresistible punching bag. And yet it may have the last laugh.

To target private citizens for mocking reenactments is a bold move. If the Princes were less reviled, and less emblematic of economic disparity, it probably wouldn’t fly. But alas they are both, and Ellison fills in their missing years with glee. Most readers will find themselves chuckling along at their charmed lives, and perhaps a few will be spurred toward self-reflection. The book’s other chapters are less personal, merely depicting the generalized worldview and artifacts of the upper classes. The series Still Lifes imagines the loose ephemera that might be found on kitchen counters of the well to do: pottery, food scraps, college papers, business cards, and dated issues of Architectural Digest, while the mouthful chapter College Preparatory Schools, San Francisco Bay Area, California captures organic plants raised in the placid student gardens of Marin. We see sushi being prepared, ocean waves, and fleece garments. Some of these subjects —field hockey games and garden plots, for example—appear to be real and not fabricated by Ellison. Regardless of provenance, all blend into lily-white paste. By manifesting wealth through casual accoutrements, Ellison smartly avoids overplaying the theme. There are no Bentleys, butlers, or private jets on parade here. Instead, Ellison portrays white privilege as an insidious force, almost invisible in its systemic presence.

The slow rollout of chapters gradually assumes an absurd tone, and some photographs are outright funny on their own, such as the golfing photo mentioned above, or a delicious series of mock Christmas card portraits, with subjects so earnestly winsome they are veer closer to Schitt’s Creek than reality. In the hands of another artist, these might fall flat. But Ellison adds odd incongruities here and there which keep the reader alert. For example, a photo of two men preparing dinner for “Pasta Night”—an homage to the 1999 John Currin painting Homemade Pasta—is jilted by the unexplained lack of pants on one of them. Throughout the book, Ellison’s captions are playful and offbeat. If they seem almost too cute, it might hint at the aw-shucks deference of the beau monde. 

Living Trust has garnered much attention and accolades since its publication in April, including a recent Aperture/Paris listing for Best First Photobook. The recognition is deserved. This is a finely crafted debut. But overlooked in the flurry of articles is the uncomfortable fact that Living Trust exemplifies the very white privilege it critiques. Its prim proper cover is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are also three academic essays strategically interjected, each fully footnoted, the type of interpretive aid typically found in a gallery or auction setting. There is a rear index cataloging all photos by size and medium, with greyed icons for reference. There is Buck Ellison’s exemplary CV (b. 1987, shows in Paris, New York, London, Press, Books, etc.) After all this information is absorbed one comes away with the distinct impression of art works being promoted to potential patrons. 

There is nothing inherently wrong in this—photographers have to eat too—but it is ironic that the book’s target market is the same demographic it castigates. One wouldn’t be surprised to find its pictures framed in the study of a Malibu townhouse. Perhaps this is inherent in the medium. The art world appropriates self-critique along with other artifacts of deconstruction, rebranding and rebirthing all of it in an ouroboros of disposable income. Still, for a book that shines a light on societal inequities, its tendency to reinforce and capitalize on such systems is problematic. Ellison might empathize with Black Lives Matter, but his book feels far removed from the street marches and direct action at the forefront of lasting societal change. 

Collector’s POV: Buck Ellison 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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