That photography has become one of the most banal visual interfaces in twenty-first-century life is no new observation. Every day, millions of people upload scores of images to privatized servers; encounter even more images on algorithmically governed online platforms; and craft their lives in accordance with the cohesive textures of branded imagery. With this, one might ask whether photography’s critical force and relevance has waned in our image-saturated present or, conversely, if its pertinence has been heightened by the unique burden it bears in reflecting on its ethical, political, and aesthetic relation to the accumulating heap of images. Three recent photography-led exhibitions in New York City forged unexpectedly generative dialogues, laying bare photography’s embodied contradictions. These exhibitions, by LaToya Ruby Frazier, Tina Barney, and Buck Ellison, suggest that the medium’s dissonant valences symptomize the wider social contradictions of racial capital and its attendant global crises.
The work of Buck Ellison, on view at Luhring Augustine, offers one example of how whiteness might be critically interrogated (without the distraction of equally unproductive, self-congratulatory moralistic pretensions). Ellison’s exhibited photographs, made between 2017 and 2022, are meticulously researched yet fictionalized portraits of Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial private security firm, Blackwater. Ellison situates Prince in 2003 on his Wyoming ranch, the same year his firm was awarded contracts by the United States military after its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Partly influenced by Barney’s documentation of the American elite and her staged compositions (which she developed from 1981 onwards), Ellison paradoxically wields artifice to illuminate the historical and ongoing reproduction of whiteness and global coloniality. Using an actor, multiple props, and researched locations, the artist produces cinematic images that concentrate, via queered logics, circuits of ambivalent desire and estranged commercialized affect. Akin to the photographs’ citational titles (which the exhibition’s accompanying publication, Little Brother, decrypts), Ellison’s images function as visualized footnotes, each depicted book, garment, tax filing, bodily gesture, and architectural feature referencing a specific detail from Prince’s life and the networked institutions that shaped and produced it.
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