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Young man laying on patterned carpet in front of a leather couch
Young man laying on patterned carpet in front of a leather couch

Buck Ellison, Rain in Rifle Season, Distributions from Split-Interest Trusts, Price Includes Uniform, Never Hit Soft, 2003, 2021, ink-jet print, 39 3⁄4 × 53 1⁄8".

Buck Ellison’s shrewdly destablizing “Little Brother,” the most recent installment of his ongoing conceptual deep dive into the construction and presentation of white privilege, took as its subject Erik Prince—wealthy heir, former navy SEAL, founder of infamous private military contractor Blackwater, alleged arms trafficker and disinformation operative. The son of a profoundly conservative Michigan businessman (and younger brother of former US education secretary Betsy DeVos), Prince and his private security groups have reportedly won billions of dollars in government contracts while participating in numerous military and political conflicts around the world.

For the Los Angeles–based Ellison, a photographer with a keen eye for telling details and the obsessive stamina to painstakingly bring them to life, Prince is an avatar for the potential lethality of a certain species of moneyed advantage and curdled ambition. But he’s also something of a charismatic all-American hottie, at least as imagined in Ellison’s first major gallery show in New York, which included six meticulously staged photos, a short film, and a wallpaper piece evoking the Opium Wars–era colonial project of the British East India Company. Set in 2003, when Prince was thirty-four and Blackwater was winning its first major contracts, Ellison’s images feature actor Noah Grant playing the nefarious figure doing, well, nothing much really, on his family’s 990-acre Wyoming ranch. At first glance, the activities depicted in the photos—Prince looks at documents on the porch of the estate home, gazes pensively into the distance, walks in a moonlit pasture—are so banal they hardly even register. This guy is the wicked mastermind of the martial dark arts? Puppet master of deadly mercenary forces, covert CIA asset, associate of militia leaders and warlords across the globe? But there’s method to Ellison’s mundanity: As he writes in a publication that explicates the project, “I wanted . . . to earnestly try to understand someone whose actions make my stomach turn—where he came from, which institutions molded him, which hardships marred him.” The project’s motivation, he has said, is to examine “what happens when a viewer is forced to get close to a snake in the grass. If the camera allows us to desire, or to be curious, or to feel empathy.”

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