A new show at Luhring Augustine, New York finds Ellison inhabiting the roles of rigorous conceptual photographer, zealous detractor and obsessed fan
The year was 2003, and the private military firm Blackwater had just attained lucrative US government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mercenary organisation, whose employees ignominiously went on to massacre 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, was founded by former Navy Seal Erik Prince, heir to a manufacturing fortune and brother to Betsy DeVos, best known for her disastrous tenure as secretary of education under Donald Trump. Prince, who charged $6,500 per seat for evacuation flights out of Kabul in 2021, is the subject of Little Brother, a show of work by Los Angeles-based photographer Buck Ellison.
Ellison is known for staging photographic tableaux of generic wealthy white Americans surrounded by the sometimes-insular symbols they use to telegraph financial and social power. From 2017 to 2022 he narrowed his scope in a series focused on Blackwater’s loathsome founder. Featuring a handsome Prince lookalike, the highly researched, meticulously constructed scenes are set in 2003, when Prince was thirty-four years old, on an approximation of the family ranch in Wyoming. Six photographs (all 2021), two of which featured in the 2022 Whitney Biennial, and one video (2022) on view abound with iconography that is simultaneously hyperspecific to Prince’s life and more broadly tied up with wealthy white conservatism, (proto-)Trumpism and the new right. The show’s decorative backdrop is likewise grim: patterned with opium pipes, paper lanterns, blue and white porcelain, and East India Company rupees, the silkscreened wallpaper Five Windows (2023) illustrates Prince’s characterisation of his plans for privatised war in Afghanistan as an ‘East India Company approach’.
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