June 8, 2015

On the Invisibility of Upper East Side Primates, and the Rich in General

When it comes to candid images of the upper and the upper-upper classes, a secret shame of the visual media is that it self-censors. I’m not talking about pictures of celebrities, or rich people in the spotlight because they got in trouble. I’m also not talking about variants of the society pages. I’m talking about everyday news and documentary photos. What you will see on occasion is mockery, such as when a news site run a gallery of photos by Martin Parr. I would contend, though, that stories like that actually enable the rich. Turning people into caricatures ultimately deflects our attention.

One reason I’m bringing it up is because of the chatter over Primates of Park Avenue, and the even greater noise over that supposed “wife bonus.” With Parr in mind, however, this moment/opportunity to examine the fabulously monied goes wide of the mark. When you start talking about the wealthy and ethnography and primates and tribes and herds and social signaling, it might sound like social science, and with it, an observational method. But the terminology is mostly employed to lend a veneer of depth and method to just more caricature.

This photo above, illustrating the NY Magazine post on the book and the buzz, is a case-in-point. Or, there’s this photo that lead off Vanity Fair’s post on the book:

One might argue that cutting off someone’s head is an editorial commentary. Having looked at a lot of news photos of the very-well-off, though, especially during this “primate” spike, I see it differently. The rich are the sweet spot in the news demographic. The rich are also just two, or even one degree of separation from the executive editor, or the publisher, or the president of NewsSite.com. It’s one thing to call out the 1%, but just dare any publication to randomly shine a light on them, especially on their Upper East Side faces.

(photo 1: Jessica Craig-Martin/Trunk Archive photo 2: Anna Moller/Getty Images caption: Primates of Park Avenue is a memoir-slash-ethnography of Upper East Side women.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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