Saturday, July 13, 2019

Something to Look At

Here's a picture to look at. Take your time.

What do you see?

Obviously it is a group portrait of someone's children, in someone's home. Probably their own.

The group looks uncomfortable, and off-kilter. Something feels off here. We might just write this off as kids being uncomfortable with being posed and shot. But, let us look a little closer.

There are numerous hints that this is pretty casual. The boy is not wearing shoes, there is a board game on the ground with what might be a partially played game set out on it. The boy's glasses are slightly askew and everyone looks clumsily and recently posed. The camera angle is very low, as if Dad was crouched to get to his son's eye level. But if it's Dad, where are the forced smiles?

Try as I might, I cannot identify the board game. It looks like a military/combat game, possibly homemade.

Contrariwise, the house looks Done. There is no clutter, just a mass of ill-matched cheap-looking decoration. There are books "out" (one in the hands of the girl on the left, the other resting on the ground under the boy's remarkably awkwardly positioned hand), but the rest are neatly shelved. The books look a little like cheap thrift store acquisitions. A little table and some other unidentifiable piece almost out of frame are set oddly in front of the chair or sofa visible on the right edge of the frame. It appears to be impossible to sit in the floral thing on the right edge of the frame. There are flowers which, weirdly, match some of the book spines and the game board on the ground. One of the girls is wearing incomprehensible red shoes (like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz?)

There is in general simply too much stuff in the frame. Things have clearly been brought together to fill in the picture. It could, perhaps, be a grandmother's cluttered house, but it's not cluttered as such, simply too densely packed to be lived in. The oddest thing, maybe, took me a long long time to notice. The furniture the children are arrayed on and in front of forms an unbroken wall. You cannot get to the rooms in the background without leaving the frame. Someone might arrange a room that way, but it would be weird and inconvenient.

Colors are repeated across the frame. Red, red, red. Orange, orange, orange. Floral patterns are picked up from furniture and repeated in some of the crockery. Other crockery clashes violently with the florals, but rests nicely with the lamp, and so on. The fireplace is classic 1960s Americana.

It dawns on you that we are perhaps looking at an artifice. This is staged, and it looks a bit like a Crewdson, but without the demented color cast and the overt psychological cloud. It is a poorly faked family portrait, but with enough expertise present to suggest that the fakery and its obviousness is purposeful.

What is being faked?

A portrait of a family, of some means but by no means wealthy (the carpet is dingy, the furnishings look cheap) but nor yet poor. A relentlessly middle class family without much taste. Things match, sort of, but not well. The art on the wall looks like very small, cheap, reproductions of not very good paintings.

If this be artifice (and it is) the lamp cord and plug under the side table is a lovely touch. Well done.

So, this thing is shot by one Buck Ellison, who, essentially, makes critical/mocking staged photos of affluent white people. This particular one is from a project entitled Tender Option (a pun on a type of financial instrument) which is a staged imagining of the early life of the Prince family. The Princes are grifters, and very successful ones. The current generation builds corporation-like-entities whose sole function is to extract money from the government, and at the same time work to influence government policy to increase their take. Erik Prince, famously, runs a mercenary outfit that does dirty jobs for the US military at astronomical rates, while his sister Betsy runs of the Department of Education and advocates for "charter schools."

Daniel C. Blight, International Idiot, has published an essay in 1000 Words Magazine, that bastion of vaguely artsy blockheaded mouth-noises. It is, as you can imagine, not good. Blight is simply doing his usual incoherent hand-wringing about how awful white people are and have been, colonialism this, royal family that. I did like "The obsequious glow of white skin" though. He goes nowhere with it, but it was a nice start. The essay purports to be about Buck Ellison and his work, but it's not even clear that Blight knows these things are staged.

we might therefore interpret it as a space that is constructed

Blight leaves out the fact that this is a space that actually was constructed, which seems, I dunno, salient? But he must know this, because this is literally what Buck Ellison does. Right? Surely?

Anyways, Blight reads this picture as one of affluence and power, as far as I can tell. He's correct in that it nods, sort of incoherently, to the European traditions of portrait painting by cramming the frame full of the signs, and of subject's Stuff. He's got the signifiers, but he's not seeing what they signify. This is also a posed and arranged fake family portrait:

These fucking people are affluent and powerful. First of all, the models are projecting the proper attitude. Second of all, their clothes fit. The fact that they are standing in front of a dump of a house doesn't matter.

Nothing is oozing off the young "Prince" family except a sort of discomfort and middle-class American ennui, the more or less standard contemporary imagining of 1970s America.

Here is a somewhat well known fact that you maybe have not heard. The wealthy, when they buy clothing off the rack, buy it too large and have it tailored to fit. Wealthy people, like the grown-up Prince clan, have clothing which fits, and a posture and attitude of arrogant wealth and power. There are photographs in which affluence oozes off the subject, lots of them (any picture of Betsy DeVos or Erik Prince, for starters, they are oozey people.) Buck Ellison's picture is no such thing.

The clothes don't fit. They're not the wrong size or anything, but they don't fit. They are not tailored.

Interestingly, Blight also gets in a dig at the British Royals, complaining about how pictures "appear so avaricious and white." I shan't argue with the whiteness, although I will note that Blight would rather talk about the Duchess of Cambridge than the Duchess of Sussex. But, avaricious? I don't know what picture Blight is looking at, but the British Royals have been carefully projecting a picture of amiably dopey middle-classness for my entire life. The dresses the royal tailors are forced to make for the Queen must be stained with their tears.

Now, it is true that the clothing fits, the accent is rather posh, and there are regular episodes of Regalia, but in general the Royals do a pretty fair job of projecting an amiable middle-class tone in their visuals.

Blight is, of course, not really looking at the pictures. He is looking at the captions. The Prince Family is a bunch of wealthy, white, dicks, we don't need to look at the picture. Ditto the Royals.


  1. honestly I thought it was a thing for Stranger Things... [stone seal]

  2. Looks like the sitting room of your average NHS consultant gynecologist or hack solicitor.