Work / Photography

Buck Ellison’s staged photographs capture the private lives of California WASPs

Buck Ellison’s photographs depict the seemingly banal, everyday moments of the American, wellness-obsessed, cheese-board buying, WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). Listing his interests as including: “maleness, preparation for being an executive, Lacrosse as an elite sport, Protestant education, rituals, new meritocracy, competition and big sky country”; Buck’s work takes the familiar WASP aesthetic and fleshes it out with meaning, both critical and symbolic.

Each photograph is staged by actors, capturing the private lives of a privileged class that may otherwise go unseen behind the gates of their secure communities and country clubs, and the props are painstakingly sourced, rather than stumbled upon at the farmers market. Buck photographs a women’s Lacrosse game, staged with considerations of how it is “closer to Native American sport” than the men’s game, and the considerations of decorum put on it by officials: “[it’s] ’extremely graceful, as if 24 women were racing through a ballet without music’… played with the ‘British idea toward games’ emphasising physical proficiency and feminine refinement”. He captures intimate moments like a family Christmas card, two girls eating crudités with humous, a mother (very calmly) lecturing her son, two ‘large adult sons’ making pasta, a portrait of a non-profit organisation and two friends sticking bumper stickers to an expensive car. The jumping-off point for the bumper sticker photograph was autobiographical: [They] were a big deal in high school; they offered a way to differentiate oneself within a homogenous pool”; “I was attracted to the profanity of ruining the paint job of an expensive car with cheap stickers, but I also liked the tenderness of the moment when the sticker is being affixed for the first time, of identity literally in the act of construction”.

Buck scouted the location, cast the models, paid for the one model to get cupping, and spent a long time sourcing stickers – “Patagonia, The North Face, and Save Tibet” – and clothes – “a Ralph Lauren shirt, a Red Stripe tank top, a ring from Thailand,” he explains. “I wanted to suggest that a series of painstakingly considered decisions had preceded the moment we see. These choices seem trifling, but in this microcosm of a world, where wealth and progressivism sit so close, where kids hate capitalism but don’t know what it means yet, these affiliations carry enormous weight”, he says. They shot for about two hours, “so long so that the actions become routine, the models are putting stickers on a car rather than acting like they are putting stickers on a car”; the sunset setting “inspired by the flag on the ‘Save Tibet’ sticker… lending a heroic light to this otherwise mundane moment”.

Buck’s photographs are disciplined in their attention to detail; in the same way the subjects are disciplined in their approach to their diets, cashmere care, and tax efficiency. Both subtle and sharp, he balances attraction and repulsion in his depictions of the beige elite, and he still recalls the moment they first caught his attention: “When I was fifteen, I went to Nice to study French. This was a summer of firsts: first menthol cigarette, first application of tanning oil, first Lacoste polo shirt (size 4, light yellow). I was so impressed by the girls I met there; girls from schools called Chapin, Nightingale, Spence; girls who breezed into the quad with new Longchamps after morning lessons; girls who had an answer for everything. They seemed so urbane and worldly. There was something in the casual way they related to luxury that fascinated me – and still does. It was the first time I felt that strange mix of attraction and repulsion that motivates so much of my work.”


Buck Ellison: Cheeseboard


Buck Ellison: Christmas Card


Buck Ellison: Crystal Springs


Buck Ellison: Great Society


Buck Ellison: Hiker


Buck Ellison: Hummus


Buck Ellison: Mama


Buck Ellison: Pasta Night


Buck Ellison


Buck Ellison


Buck Ellison


Buck Ellison