Will Vogt, These Americans

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Schilt Publishing (here). Hardback with cloth cover and inlaid photograph, 21.59 x 19.05 cm., 240 pages, with 130 color photographs. Introduction by Jay McInerney. Edited by Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Jordan Baumgarten, with text by Jennifer Garza-Cuen. Design by Cara Buzzell. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Will Vogt’s path into photography was somewhat typical for post-war amateurs. His father gave him a Nikkormat for his 17th birthday in 1969. His mother had been an avid shutterbug, and Vogt quickly picked up the photo habit. He Vogted early and often, shooting concerts, events, friends, and family. He processed film at the local one-hour photo shop and collected prints in albums. Photography was always a non-professional hobby, pursued for fun, not sustenance. That facet injected a playful spark into his river of snapshots, which gradually accumulated into roughly 70,000 frames shot between 1969 and 1996.

Those basic elements are not unusual. But Will Vogt’s pictures are nevertheless extraordinary. They combine natural talent and wealthy milieu to create a singular photographic voice. His oeuvre has finally reached fruition of sorts at the ripe age of 71, with the debut photobook These Americans. Vogt’s photos were deeply personal, entangled with memories, relationships, and emotions. Catering them to a general audience required outside help, and photographers Jennifer Garza-Cuen and Jordan Baumgarten were brought on board for the purpose. In collaboration with Vogt, they’ve winnowed the archive down to 130 pictures. If not the tightest edit, it’s entertaining. These Americans offers a window into Vogt’s world and, more tantalizingly, a glimpse behind the curtain of the idle rich.

The silver spoon came before silver salts. Vogt grew up in a prosperous family in Haverford, Pennsylvania, born in 1952. By his own reckoning he was “less interested in sports than the children he knew, and gravitated instead toward literature, music, and art.” Meanwhile the sixties were coming into swing. Vogt’s reaction to a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1969 signaled a private awakening to match the zeitgeist. “It was my first concert and to say it changed my life would be an understatement,” he remembers.

Vogt’s enlightenment notwithstanding, somehow the era’s tumult largely escaped his camera. These Americans offers scant hint of flower power, psychedelia, gas lines, Vietnam, or Watergate. It leans instead into the private gatherings of high society, a prim subculture of purebred dogs, manicured lawns, white gloves, and white humans. Tucked away in gated mansions and estates, “these (were) people living in the world their parents and grandparents inhabited and created,” writes Jay McInerney (These Americans is indeed dedicated to Vogt’s parents). It’s hard to assign dates or locations to the gatherings. The photos float in a privileged bubble, their disconnection cleverly enhanced by omitting identifying captions. Presumably Vogt has the dirt on his subjects. In McInerney’s words, “he knows who’s fucking whom, who cheats at golf, and who starts drinking at eleven in the morning,” That may be true, but his pictures leave many unanswered questions.    

If Vogt too is discreet with details, that’s fine. His photos are quite suggestive. For readers accustomed to middle class mores, These Americans titillates with possibility. A flurry of establishing shots lays out the territory with a pet tiger lounging by the pool, a trophy buck carted away by private helicopter, and fires off-gassing from personal oil fields. A picture of friends partying on a resort patio provides an establishing shot for Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the blue blood community where the Vogt family summered. He still visits regularly.

Over the next several pages, Vogt’s world expands in odd tangents. We see three playboys piloting a speedboat—this could be a movie still from a James Bond film—then a stone mansion with inlaid driveway, a line of servants attending the patriarch’s arrival, and so on. Scenes from South Texas soon enter the mix. This is where Vogt eventually settled as an adult to test his luck at oil exploration, ranching, and quail hunting. The game trail led to Africa and England, naps on private jets, and gilded dining rooms. Photos of these subjects fall into stereotype of sorts, but they still rivet attention. Wherever he roamed, it seemed Vogt made pictures. As evidenced by this book, his subjects became inured to his camera. He became an invisible fly on the French Luxe wallpaper, observing events with unfiltered candor.

It’s this last aspect that sets These Americans apart. Of course Vogt is not the first to photograph the wealthy, but his have photos have a raw and honest authenticity which is rare. Other photographers have been more circumspect. Tina Barney, for example, also had a front row seat to photograph her upscale family. But her images are more mannered and reserved than Vogt’s. Gillian Laub’s “Family Matters” (reviewed here) cast a more spontaneous gaze on the moneyed class than Barney, yet her photos were harnessed into politicized narrative. Slim Aarons, Lauren Greenfield (reviewed here), and Martin Parr (reviewed here) have each examined the well-heeled, but all as outsiders looking in. Eggleston, meanwhile, takes the opposite tack. He is a wealthy insider casting his curious gaze outward.

Scanning the drunken revelry in These Americans, Dash Snow comes to mind too. The late prodigy may have turned his back on his noble lineage, but his bad boy photos still struck a tone of privileged hedonism. That spirit is alive and well amid Vogt’s cohort. Friends and family are seemingly engaged on a perpetual cocktail circuit, one pool party after another, with drink in hand with buzzed mingling, sharing anecdotes and laughter. A picture of cocaine weighed on a scale hints at darker currents, but nothing too sinister. In general the mood hews closer to The Great Gatsby than Naked Lunch. The yacht and penny loafer crowd is encapsulated in a snapshot of George H.W. Bush in South Texas. Just another target in a parade of tycoons. If Dash Snow had survived into his 50s he might have found his way back to this world. In any case, Vogt’s caught some of Snow’s rebellious spirit. “To the photography teacher at Tufts, who gave me an F in Photo 1,” he writes in the acknowledgements, “I hope you enjoy the book.” It’s penned with the sort of mischievous comeuppance which F-U money allows.

Vogt’s pride might fall flat in a book of mediocre photos. But it turns out he’s a very good photographer. These Americans is consistently and surprisingly strong, and occasionally fantastic. The helicoptered hunting prize strikes the perfect compositional note. It’s matched by another trophy kill—McInerney: “Bloodsport is a constant visual theme”—viewed at night through a car windshield. Two dogs snarling are caught at the decisive moment, as are masked naked rites. A shot of golf green and red flag divides the frame with easy formal excellence while a male figure keyholes into a sail. Another spread juxtaposes a friend’s exposed member with splayed deer parts. Who could dream these things up? Not only did they exist, they swirled in Vogt’s regular orbit. It took skill and precision to corral them into photos, and he succeeded with aplomb.

Despite its strengths, this book is likely to face headwinds in photoland. A book of party shots by a rich white American? One could hardly choose a poorer fit for the contemporary zeitgeist, busy of late reassessing and correcting past oversights and injustices. Expanded representation is necessary and welcome of course. But into these transformations These Americans plops like a lead brick. Thud. Photographers have traditionally aimed their cameras down the socio-economic scale, not up. From How The Other Half Lives to the FSA to East 100th St., Streetwise, and Sleeping By The Mississippi, Americans have spotlighted the underclass. But the mysterious 1%? Not so much. These Americans seems a reversal on past tropes, for better or worse.

The title These Americans is no accident. It’s a restrictive tweak of The Americans—Robert Frank is one of Vogt’s photo heroes—and one of several homages. The cover layout is also modeled after Frank, with a simple photo above verbatim all-capitals phrasing: Photographs by Will Vogt, Introduction by Jay McInerney, just as in The Americans. Lastly the book dimensions, roughly 8.25 x 7.25 inches, are the same as Frank’s original. It must have been tempting to limit the edit to 83 photos, but Garza-Cuen and Baumgarten were wise to resist. That would have been too much. In any case, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and These Americans pays tribute to its predecessor. Time will tell if it has the same enduring influence, or is just a passing trophy kill.

Collector’s POV: Will Vogt 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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