in conversation with
Linda Mai Green
Linda Mai Green – Could you please walk me through your process for making the still life photographs that are featured in the exhibition?
Buck Ellison – The still lifes started as a way for me to try understand photos I had collected from magazines, newspapers, and brochures. Each image had me so intensely attracted and repulsed simultaneously that I was looking at them for years in my studio. To give an example, “Only the horse knows how the saddle fits” includes an Hermès foundation report with an image of a young girl in a baseball cap, staring directly into the camera. The article explains how the company sponsored sports programs for disadvantaged youth to keep them “out of trouble.” This idea seemed so outdated, like the 19th century American obsession with sports as a way to regulate the lower classes, it bordered on offensive. I was so taken with the photo, however, because the girl has so much agency, she seems wary to lend herself to this promotional image. “Only the horse knows how the saddle fits” was Hermès’ slogan back in their saddle-making days, but I thought it could also describe the problem of such youth programs coming from top down.
I thought if I could create a structure around these images, I might be able to understand them better, like a poet uses the sonnet form. The structure is as follows:
The photograph will be shot directly from above.
The photograph will be shot with natural light.
The photograph will be shot on a hand-painted background.
The photograph will include the found photograph or object
The photograph will contain a technical error.
The photograph will be printed 10% larger than reality, a convention from advertising used to show texture.
The photograph will be shot on a large format camera and printed in a darkroom.
LMG – Could you talk about this aerial view, which is sort of uncommon for traditional still life paintings?
BE – In my studio, I put stuff on tables rather than hang them up, so I got used to looking at these objects from above. I like that this point of view because it evokes a breakfast table or other domestic setting, but also a camera reproduction table, which has this clinical or forensic connotation.
LMG – What about the decision-making behind the color palette for this series (do you see it as a series, actually?)
BE – My intention is always to create a work that can stand alone.
The background colors are reproductions of the 120 shades of blue that George Washington selected for his estate, Mount Vernon. Pigments, especially blue and green shades made from precious stones, were expensive in the young colony and wealthy landowners like Washington used large amounts of them on their walls to showcase their fortunes.
I also used pigments to locate the work historically. I wasn’t interested in making a work about photography or the studio, so I hoped that using pigment panels rather than colored paper backgrounds would make this clear.
LMG – There are many allusions to food and its presentation (“Carbs,” oysters and seafood, fruit and vegetables in various states, dinnerware) in the works in the show, which is a common trope in Dutch vanitas paintings. Do you think the same tension between visual pleasure and the potential for decay—physical or moral—translate to today’s often secular world?
BE – I’m not sure these Dutch still lifes were as much about moral decay as we now read them to be. I think they were about trying to find a visual language that could keep pace with the new treasures flooding into the republic from the colonies. Artists were asking themselves what it meant to re-produce or re-present luxury objects (prized tulips, for example) within another luxury object (the painting). This is a question I come back to again and again with my work, so I’ve always felt I have a lot to learn from looking at them.
These paintings were also made in a social context with startling similarities to contemporary United States. The Protestant Dutch prized outward piety and modesty, but interior splendor was allowed, or at least tolerated by, the church. Property records of the wealthy merchant class make plain an intense fascination with the new luxury goods available in the empire. This wealth was both at odds with and a product of the Protestant spirit, with its emphasis on hard work, saving, and prudent investment. I imagine this unresolved rift created a lot of guilt for the merchant class, as it has for many wealthy Americans today, so we see paintings absorb this ambivalence, images that negotiate a hazy line between celebrating and condemning the luxuries they depict.
LMG – Do you see yourself as making a critique of consumerism?
BE – No.
LMG – What about your thinking behind “Protestant Suite”?
BE – “The Protestant Suite” includes four photographs that I made at the fish counter at Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), a department store in Berlin. Whoever arranged that fish counter clearly had an excellent understanding of the history of Western painting, I found myself going a few times a week to look at it. I learned that on Saturday evening they discarded all the unsold fish, thousands and thousands of Euros worth of it, so I decided to take my pictures then.
LMG – “Protestant Suite” reminds me that the camera is this mechanical eye looking at seafood for sale at the fish market—something similarly dead and cold—but when you add the titles and the art historical associations to allegorical Dutch imagery, there is this very human, or even ethical position that comes out. Could you speak to that, and especially how titles and language perform in your work?
BE – My goal with titles has always been to encourage the viewer to take a second look at the image itself. I try to use a title that can make us look closer, that can take us back to the work rather than away from it.
This series is made of up four works: “Ethical Culture,” “Strenuous Life,” “Great Society,” and “Scientific Charity.” These titles are borrowed from American social movements that used sports or science to better the lives of “the other half.” I’ve done a good deal of research on this time period, but I also used these titles lyrically. It’s equally important to me that they are all adjective-noun combinations. There may be a relationship between defunct social movements and a pile of discarded fish, but it’s not important to know exactly what scientific charity was historically to engage with the works.
LMG – It seems then that the intersection of class and aesthetics is brought up in your work. Do you think taste and aesthetic judgment are an elite visual code?
BE – I don’t think that good taste is particularly impressive in and of itself, but it does bring up questions of access. For example, at the risk of being too forward, I think it’s important to note that this conversation on aesthetic judgement is taking place within the framework of an exhibition organized by someone who is a collector and curator, and that you and I went to rival prep schools in the Bay Area and Ivy League colleges.
What interests me more is how taste comes to be defined in negative terms: what you don’t do, say, or show. With such a concerted effort to be as modest, liberal, inoffensive as possible, a certain segment of white America seems very invested in covering its tracks. The challenge of representing this self-erasing subject fascinates me.
LMG – These issues bring up Bourdieu’s 1979 book Distinction. Could you mention any books or literary influences in your work?
BE – I read a lot of novels in grad school. It felt like there were more writers doing what I was interested in doing than artists. So I sought out writers who focused on the social codes and customs around them; Louis Auchincloss, Jane Austen, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were the big ones for me. I hoped that something might rub off on me, that I could learn how to do this visually.
LMG – You studied at Städelschule in Frankfurt for four years, and you saw the legacy of photography in Germany play out a bit differently than in the States, could you please speak about that?
BE – To paint it in broad strokes, photography often seems suspended between two myths - the camera as mechanical eye on the German end, and the camera as an extension of the photographer’s eye on the American end. Both these ideals have been poked through with holes, but I was surprised how much they still very much haunt their respective countries. I’m happy to have been schooled with both ends of the stick.
LMG – You work with a large format camera, correct? Why this process?
BE – For the works in this show I used a large format camera. Detail and texture are so integral to these works, it was important to me to reproduce that faithfully as possible.