ROCHESTER, NY.- The George Eastman Museum
is showing the latest body of work from photographer Brian Ulrich, The Centurion. An artist drawn to exploring the visual landscape of Americas consumption economy, Ulrich has spent the last several years photographing sites and people associated with extreme wealth. This exhibition of 23 of his recent photographs is on view in the museums Project Gallery through February 14, 2016.
The Centurion is named for the famed American Express Black Card, which was created in response to persistent urban legends and stubborn rumors of its existence. 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 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.
The allure of material abundance is among the most powerful forces driving contemporary culture, and it permeates contemporary advertising and popular culture, said Brian Ulrich. This, despite the old saw (and solid evidence) that money cannot buy happiness, is the contradiction powering the myth that resulted in the reality of the Centurion.
This transformation of rumor into fact foretold the accelerating pace of income inequality, in which the dream of extreme wealth has increasingly become a reality for a small sliver of contemporary society. Ulrichs photographs document three key manifestations of this phenomenon:
The display window, where luxury goods are presented as exclusive objects of desire.
Personal appearance, in which individuals cultivate eccentricity, highlight cultural mannerisms, and flaunt elite fashion in order to set themselves apart.
Residences designed to look like castles, an emerging trend among the upper class, with curtain walls serving as visual and conceptual fortifications against outsiders.
Ulrichs 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, said Lisa Hostetler, curator in charge, Department of Photography, George Eastman Museum. Now, at a time when the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest members of contemporary society grows ever wider, Ulrichs struggle to unravel the enigmatic magnetism of the Centurion myth seems particularly urgent.