Dougie Wallace: the renegade exposing the wealthy elite
The latest images of the super-rich, by Dougie Wallace, in a series entitled Harrodsburg, make fascinating viewing. Wallace is a street photographer, who continues the '60s tradition of Magnum style photography - not in some war torn country - but on home soil. He still uses the schtick of war photography though, as if his images of Blackpool hens and stags parties were a 'graphic nightmare' filled with ghouls and sexy witches in a weird recall of Goya's horrors of war prints.
In this latest series, Wallace tries to account and to chronicle the growing separation between the rich and the poor. The ultimate power of the super-rich is that they can choose when and where they are imaged. For Jacques Ranciere, one of the major manifestations of power is the control over what is visible and what is invisible. This usually centres on the invisibility of the poor and disenfranchised from political discussions. But another corollary is that the super-rich tightly control their own visibility and on the whole make themselves invisible to the general society. It is the logic of Kayser Soze in The Usual Suspects and the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
Wallace describes his work as "an up-close wealth safari, exploring the wildlife that inhabits the super-rich residential and retail district of Knightsbridge and Chelsea." He considers himself a satirist, bringing the rich into view so as to ridicule them in a perverse comedy of manners. Wallace proudly proclaims "My hit ratio of someone with a bad facelift is one a day." However I am not sure that it is particularly successful satire. The powerful do not really care what we think. I think they do not consider themselves ridiculous and aristocratic eccentricity is to be prized. Plastic surgery, for example, is a sign of wealth, not something to hide, and as for hats? The bigger the better.
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Of Wallace's images it is the aristocratic everydayness of the fashion, rather than the Eurotrash excesses that really interested me. In fashion as in life, it is very subtle (almost invisible) markers of wealth that is the British style. As long as your friends can tell the difference between bespoke flats and those from the high street that's all that matters. In any case it wasn't the satire that was a problem. What upset these subjects, some Qataris most vocally, was being imaged at all.
Even when celebutantes choose to invite us into their private jets via Instagram, the whole thing is very staged and managed. And even someone like Kim Kardashian really doesn't let us into this world very much. What is usually imaged is how similar they are to the middle class (squabbles with siblings, boyfriend troubles, weddings, and Las Vegas hens nights). The only thing that separates them on the show is that these events are done in very expensive clothes and at very expensive venues (we are the same as you but richer). In this way, they are able to maintain a certain connection to their viewers without alienating them. They offer a manageable aspirational fantasy. If there were too many shots inside the private jets of Kanye West or castles in France, their viewers would actually realise how different their lives are.
But Kim Kardashian does not represent the elite of the super-wealthy. They say that newspapers are interested in name and/or fame, but those with a name do not need to be famous. It surprised me recently to see a photograph of Francesca Packer Barham, the granddaughter of the late Kerry Packer, debuting at the exclusive Le Bal des Debutantes in Paris shown in the pages of The Telegraph a few weeks ago. I am not sure why the Packers would have provided this photo, because the event is so exclusive, so merely for a society of heiresses and royals that it seems against social etiquette to publicise the event so broadly. The ball present heirs and heiresses not for a general public, but so that other heirs and heiresses know who they should marry (in a weird 18th century throwback). But maybe this is the New Age, where even billionaires and royals have Instagram accounts. Again though, this seems to me a very controlled and authorised version.
What Dougie Wallace saw was that the super-rich could be spied (and photographed) in all their glory within the three metres between their private car and the Harrod's front door. It was a stroke of genius. Even in the wonderful documentary series from the BBC this year The Super-Rich and Us, a similar strategy was used to hunt down the super-rich. Jacques Paretti hung out with diamond salesmen, car salesmen and private jet salesmen. In the end though, I was fascinated at how few interviews with the super-rich he was actually able to have. It is demonstrable that the separation between the rich and the poor is getting more acute. Against this background it is important to remember that in a world where most of us are hoping to be as hyper-visible as possible, the real power is to be socially invisible.
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