A Mythical Credit Card Inspires an Outsider’s Photos of the 1 Percent
For years, one of the greatest urban myths among the filthy rich was the rumor that American Express offered its most esteemed customers an invitation-only credit card with perks to die for. It wasn’t true, of course, but the myth grew so large that the company finally launched the Centurion card in 1999. Photographer Brian Ulrich so loved the story that he named his latest project, which examines the lives of the 1 percent, Centurion.
“I love the idea that perhaps [American Express] had these powerful clients saying, ‘I want this card that’s going to give me all-access to whatever all-access means,” says Ulrich. The project takes viewers from the shops of Beverly Hills to custom-built castles across the United States—all in a quest to examine what Ulrich describes as this “strange mythology [of luxury].”
The idea started percolating in 2006, when Ulrich attended a VIP gallery event in Switzerland and glimpsed the art world’s elite. He grew fascinated by the abstract idea of wealth and power, but couldn’t make it work until one rainy night in 2012. He was taking pictures on 57th street and happened upon Tiffany’s closed, vault-like doors. He found them grand and foreboding, and realized he was completely shut out, physically and metaphorically. He realized that luxury had a certain aura, a certain feel, best photographed from an outside perspective. “I’m really looking at this wealth and privilege that’s being presented to culture all the time, that comes with the caveat, ‘Look but don’t touch,’” he says.
Ulrich has gone on to photograph upscale window displays in New York, Beverly Hills and Chicago with his 8×10 view camera. A photograph taken at Cole Haan in Chicago shows undressed mannequins seemingly fighting over ballet flats in autumnal shades; another captures a glittering curtain of Swarovski crystal. It seemed natural to photograph the shoppers, too, so Ulrich finds an interesting backdrop, sets up shop on the sidewalk, and asks them to sit for a portrait. The images often seem larger than life, like the woman proudly drawing her shoulders back as she poses with diamonds and a Louis Vuitton bag.
Later, Ulrich turned toward the trend toward McMansions that resemble castles. Extensive research online led to some homeowners only too happy to have him photograph their humble abodes. “A lot of people were really excited to have someone come and photograph them,” he says.
Through it all, Ulrich can’t stop questioning the old adage that money can’t buy happiness. Once in New York, a cloud blotted out the sun just as he was about to photograph a shopper. The woman had nowhere in particular to be and graciously waited 25 minutes for the cloud to pass. “She was in this really zen, wonderful, meditative state,” he says. “I realize I don’t know much more [about her] than the photograph can tell us, but there really is this idea that there’s a certain kind of reality she exists in that is so overwhelmingly different than other people’s.”
Regardless of whether you can spend your way to happiness, money certainly holds the tantalizing promise of comfort and power. Perhaps that is why so many find it so enticing. “There really is something about this that I can’t put my finger on, but I start to feel my own little tug, because we’re all programmed to desire and be envious,” he says. “That’s how this whole thing works.”
The Centurion is on display at the George Eastman House until February 16, 2016.
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