The excess of the 1980's birthed an urban legend that American Express issued an exclusive charge card to ultra-wealthy individuals, who could use it to purchase anything from private planes to private islands -- providing that they did not disclose the existence of the card. Though the legend was a lie, AmEx received relentless calls from people requesting to be considered for the card. As a result, American Express launched The Centurion in 1999, an actual charge card with benefits resembling those alleged to the mythic version.
Taking off from this premise, Brian Ulrich's current body of work, "The Centurion," explores performances of celebrity, the myth of creating private heavens on earth, and access to actualizing fantasy. A sliver of the oeuvre is currently displayed in Eastman Museum's Project Gallery.
Visitors are greeted into the space by an impractical, plush, white carpet, a dramatic photograph of a stormy sky, and ambient music that is as epically theatrical as the turbulent clouds. Ulrich says he meant to set the stage with this idea of "the promise of the afterlife."
Since the turn of the century, Ulrich has been photographing with America's consumer habits in mind. "I started thinking about poverty and the reuse of goods, and photographed thrift stores for years," he says. Then in 2008, he began photographing the receding of commercial growth, explored through images of dead malls and empty big box stores.
For "The Centurion," Ulrich considers how the other half live. While his images depict what it looks like, they also subtly consider how it happens. "The Centurion" documents three key manifestations of the phenomenon of extreme wealth: the display window, personal appearance of the elite, and new residences designed to look like castles. The images are straightforward and magnetic, yet suggest the presence of artifice.
"I'd always thought about, 'How do you photograph the idea of wealth? What does that even mean?'" Ulrich says. "For me, it centered around this idea coming from the AmEx card -- that it gave you some degree of access into almost everything, and gave you all this power. It wasn't true, it wasn't real, but the rumors of it kept coming up. AmEx had to make this thing, because they had powerful and important clients who were upset that they weren't getting this special card."
Ulrich began to shoot the storefronts that peddle luxury items. "I was captivated by the displays in windows" of upscale stores, in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, he says.
"To me, the store window is kind of the precursor to the screen, which kind of immediately places us in an image-distance to the thing. And then of course it tries to create this desire, where we want to touch it but we can't touch it."
In one image, a Tiffany window showcases a fabricated eye of the Statue of Liberty, as a kind of tribute to democracy around the fourth of July, Ulrich says. "And then they wonderfully jabbed the diamond ring into the middle." Ironically, the lighting makes the picture interestingly ominous: shadows on either side of the ring look like nails, hammered into the eye of Freedom.
"Some of the displays that were more interesting to me didn't necessarily have an overt product in them," Ulrich says, "and it was just as interesting to see how they had created the whole scene, and it still works without the object." In these images, the lifestyle of otherworldly opulence becomes an emotion, an environment showcased by lighting and structure.
Ulrich says he thinks our cultural fascination with the ultra-rich has deep roots in history, but the obsession "is kind of a 20th-century phenomenon, especially in Western Culture." In the past, "class was something that was very fixed, there was no mobility. And now, all of a sudden in the 20th century, there's this idea that we can potentially, maybe, if we're lucky enough, we could potentially all be part of that."
He says this fantasy factors into people with the scratch-off lotto tickets, "hoping that this is going to be the thing that transcends them. It isn't so much about money, as it is about transcending into some degree of immortality."
We see it in the nouveaux riche entrepreneurs' bratty kids flaunting their toys and directionless lifestyles while awkwardly clambering up a social media's shaky pedestal in pursuit of worship, or at least envy, by using the Rich Kids of Instagram hashtag. Take a look at #rkoi to gawp at the self-satisfied cluelessness of these post-modern princes.
A fascinating bit that has evolved from the existence of this hashtag is how many non-privileged young people have latched onto it, adopting the hashtag to filch the rich kids' audience or to mock them with ironic pictures of their own.
But bearing in mind that Ulrich's premise is a coveted card that offered opulence on credit, it's hard to view the exhibit without considering that even the "haves" might actually have not. Certainly, there are individuals who are in possession of unfathomable wealth. But it's no longer easy to tell them apart from those who can't pay, who are playing the part of the privileged with the help of colossal credit lines.
In one image, a candid shot of three women bearing luxury purses and a tumble of shopping bags, the carefree group cackles at some joke between them. The lightness of the bags suggests diaphanous garments within them, and the levity of the group looks exactly like a performance for an advertisement.
"They're so the embodiment of what shopping is supposed to be," Ulrich says, "which is this wonderful, frivolous activity that reinforces their friendship and their identity."
The rest of the images are posed, resulting from Ulrich standing on the street and asking the subject's permission to be photographed. It's evident that he pays close attention to the textures and tones of the surfaces behind the people he selects.
In "Christina, Beverly Hills, CA" we see an older woman who has girded and swathed her vulnerable frame with coveted labels, but her countenance under the steady eye of the camera demurs. Her inner world is closed to us.
Historically, there's been an emphasis in social documentary photography on looking at poverty. "It's kind of never been okay to have that same level of looking at people functioning in a wealthy class," he says.
Few photographers have turned a candid or street-photography style focus on the rich (Magnum's Martin Parr is one exception who springs to mind). Of course, the powerful have more agency in how they are represented in pictures.
Another portrait, of a gorgeous young woman with a confident, steady gaze and trendy, false-bohemian adornments, might actually be an image of model who owns nothing that she wears.
This woman is surrounded by images of window display images that evoke both Memento Mori and the mythic, immortal pantheon of frolicking gods. To the left is a picture of a crystal-encrusted skull display, which is blatantly post-Damien Hirst's epitome-of-Vanitas diamond and platinum skull, "For the Love of God." Beside it, "Swarovski" showcases a curtain of crystals forming a shimmering tunnel to an uncertain void, which mirrors the skull's eye socket.
Ulrich became interested in people who were building homes that resemble castles. This fascination is represented in three images in this show, each showing a fortress-esque domicile in different stages of construction, in different areas of the country.
"What more is the embodiment of this indulgence in fantasy, and turning that fantasy into something real, than literally building and then moving into a castle?," he asks.
Ulrich says he hopes to have the body of work complete in one more year, and is planning on publishing a book on the project.