The rich are famously different from you and me, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brian Ulrich has been exploring that difference photographically, looking for ways to picture high and low consumer culture in malls and thrift shops, recording closed stores and the relics they leave behind. For his latest project “The Centurion,” on view at George Eastman Museum in Rochester until February 14, Ulrich has turned his attention to the ultra wealthy, photographing signs and symbols of money among this country’s elite, but always from the outside. “I’m really looking at this wealth and privilege that’s being presented to culture all the time, that comes with a caveat, ‘look but don’t touch,'” he said in a recent interview. From shop windows at luxury stores to mansions shaped like castles, complete with moats, the situations Ulrich photographed emphasize exclusion. In portraits, his subjects deflect scrutiny behind mirrored sunglasses.
The series is named for a mythical marker of wealth, American Express’s Centurion card, (aka the Black Card), which was an urban legend before it became a reality. “The 1980s legend held that American Express issued a special charge card to select individuals, who could use it to purchase anything and everything that they wanted, from private planes to private islands,” the museum writes in a statement. “The company fielded hundreds of calls from people requesting to be considered for the card. Articles in major publications claimed that the card truly existed, while others debunked the claim. Finally, in 1999, American Express launched the Centurion, an actual credit card program with features and benefits resembling those attributed to the imaginary card.”
This transformation of rumor into fact feels like yet another superpower the wealthy seem to hold. Looked at together, Ulrich’s images are a deadpan record of the surfaces that capability produces, although it is not a surface without cracks. “Ulrich’s straightforward, beautifully constructed images take their subjects at face value, yet somehow suggest that the extent of the artifice on display may perhaps disguise a fragile illusion,” says Lisa Hostetler, curator in charge of the department of photography at George Eastman Museum, in a statement. “Now, at a time when the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest members of contemporary society grows ever wider, Ulrich’s struggle to unravel the enigmatic magnetism of the Centurion myth seems particularly urgent.”