Life & Culture

Photographer Buck Ellison’s Depictions of Wealth in White America

Ellison deftly weaves codes of wealth and privilege through his staged photographs, as evidenced by his new monograph Living Trust

Buck Ellison’s new monograph, Living Trust, takes its name from a pure financial term. A living trust might be used to protect a person’s wealth and assets during their lifetime, the LA-based photographer explains over the phone. “It’s a tax structure – there are many reasons that you would form one, at least in the United States,” he says. “I’ve been researching the way money moves around the world and the sort of secrets that lie behind that.” This niche speaks to what Ellison explores in his photography: the intricacies of wealth, whiteness and privilege in the upper-middle classes of America, depicted via scenes of staged reality.

“I found it interesting how many of these financial terms also have this strong emotional component,” he continues. “These words we associate almost with love, like ‘trust’ or ‘bonds’ or ‘shares’. I had a show in London last year and Tender Option was the title, which is again, a financial instrument, but also for me, a way of thinking about making the work.” Living Trust, published this month by Loose Joints, is Ellison’s first monograph, and brings together various series, some still ongoing, created during the past decade. Still lifes, family portraits, sports studies and staged ‘mockumentary’-like scenes come together, allusions to various codes of privilege layered in each shot. 

It was his own family’s reluctance to be photographed which sparked Ellison’s interest. “I wanted to make work about what I knew,” he explains. “I wanted to take a formal portrait of my family – 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. I wanted to explore inequality, but even asking my own family made them uncomfortable because they felt like they were being put under a microscope.”

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, Ellison worked with actors and models to create uncanny, almost cinematic images of upper-middle class America, each meticulously researched and staged. It’s a world often associated with the acronym WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), a culture stretching back to the original English and Dutch settlers in America and a term that now loosely pertains to the levels of status and privilege that Ellison’s photography describes. More so than the specifics of WASPs in America, it is “tiny social interactions, slights of manners and forms of class violence” that interest Ellison. “Novels pinpoint this so well – Virginia Woolf was an incredible critic of class in England or Edith Wharton in America. A large chunk of western painting was a representation of this sort of wealth – but there wasn’t much in photography.”

One series, based on years of research, shows imagined scenes in the life of a real family: that of Betsy DeVos, the USA’s Secretary of Education. “This one was just too good to pass up,” says Ellison, who has generally refrained from depicting, and critiquing, real people. “She’s a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher. She’s from this extremely religious, extremely wealthy, extremely Dutch family. I was like, this is too good to be true.” The series Tender Option sees Betsy as a child in the 1970s, pregnant alongside her husband in the 80s, as well as other members of her family – scenes constructed by Ellison because so little photographic material on the billionaire family is readily available. “The word ‘structure’ keeps coming up and that’s important,” Ellison continues. “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.” 

It’s the carefully engineered public perceptions – and the implications of everything else that’s kept hidden – that excites Ellison, who found himself combing public tax records when researching DeVos. “90 per cent of the information I have comes from tax records she had to make public when she took office. These offer a rare glimpse into how a family empire like hers manoeuvres our tax system.” In our world of reality TV stars and sharing our lives on social media, it’s strange to think of what’s left unsaid beyond the worlds of the ultra-privileged. “With an army of accountants and lawyers like the Devoses have, you can pick and choose which information you disclose,” says Ellison. “To me that’s like super exciting as a photographer because there’s things that we don’t have photographs of, which at this point is hard to believe, right?”

Living Trust by Buck Ellison is out now, published by Loose Joints.