Will Vogt’s Insider Photographs of America’s Wealth-Flaunting WASPs

Pin It
Will Vogt These Americans book photography
Will Vogt: These Americans© Will Vogt

A new publication Will Vogt: These Americans brings together a collection of the photographer’s images, which capture the wealth-flaunting spirit of Reagan’s America

Paging through his mother’s photo albums as a young boy, Will Vogt developed a profound respect for the ways in which photography could preserve and pass down lore from one generation to the next. In these albums, Vogt saw life through his mother’s eyes. “She was very big on family, history and leaving a mark,” he tells AnOther. “I’m sure that’s why I began taking pictures and that led directly to this practice of making albums. My mother and I were very close and I think I imitated her.”

For his 17th birthday in 1969, Vogt received a Nikkormat camera, which he quickly put to work photographing the rarified slice of American life in which he lived in Haverford, a suburb just north-west of Philadelphia on the historic Main Line. “The neighbourhood where I lived was located between Haverford College and Merion Golf Club, so that was our backyard growing up,” says Vogt. “We spent a lot of time in open spaces riding bikes – and riding on the golf course when you weren’t supposed to. It was a great place to be a kid.”

But as Vogt entered his teen years, his life was turned upside down when he was shipped off to an all-boys boarding school. “I was 5’1”, 93 lbs. [1.54m, 42kg] and my mother said afterward she burst into tears when she left me there. It was not the gentle place schools are today,” he says.

Vogt found refuge in the school library listening to records, working for the school newspaper and printing photos in the darkroom. His English teacher introduced Vogt two seminal books, The Great Gatsby and The Americans, unknowingly setting the blueprint for things to come. As he began to delve deeper into photography, Vogt felt he had a story to tell on his own terms. Looking around at his family and friends, he realised this was it. Who better to chronicle this rarified world than an insider who knew exactly what it all meant.

There’s an air of candor that surrounds everyone in Vogt’s midst, whether it’s a blonde discreetly performing oral sex at a dinner party or a full-grown tiger lounging beside the pool, making viewers feel like participants rather than voyeurs. There is a pervasive air of enthusiastic consent, a willingness to collaborate and indulge in the electric pleasures of hedonism and exhibitionism.

“I was the guy with the camera and in those days it was quite a novelty,” Vogt says. “People weren’t against being photographed because they weren’t going to be posted on somebody’s social media the next day. There was no anxiety like, ‘Oh my God, where’s this going to go?’ Really it was the opposite. For years people would say, ‘You take all these pictures and I never see any of them. Where are they?’ And I would say, ‘Well, you gotta come over to the house and we can look at some albums.’”

With the release of These Americans (Schilt), all that’s changed as Vogt invites us on an unforgettable romp with the upper crust through the late-night parties, hunting trips, picnics on the lawn, private beaches, and yacht excursions. Drawn from Vogt’s impressive archive of 70,000 images, These Americans captures glamour, grandeur and decadence of wealth in cinematic tableaux replete with a playful mix of gravitas and humour.

Like F Scott Fitzgerald, Vogt is an insider who sees things as they are, describing moments of light and shadow with a lyrical allure. “For the most part, these people are living in the world that their parents and their grandparents inhabited and created. They aren’t rebelling against the previous generation,” novelist Jay McInerney wrote in the introduction.

Indeed, Vogt’s photographs capture the spirit of Reagan’s America, a time when pop culture began to openly worship wealth. “It was the Ayn Rand era,” says photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen, who worked with Vogt to hone These Americans to perfection.

And since these photographs were made, the public’s fixation with wealth has only grown, as has the hunger for lifestyles of the rich and famous. With These Americans, Vogt reminds us that beneath the veneer of privilege, there’s always more than meets the eye.

“[Vogt] knows what they’re thinking and he knows that it may not be pretty,” McInerney wrote. “He knows who’s fucking whom, who cheats at golf, who starts drinking at 11 in the morning. But he’ll take them as they are. They’re his people. And he shows them to us in a way that no one else has. I suspect Fitzgerald would have been impressed.”

Will Vogt: These Americans is published by Schilt, and launches at Photo London, May 11-14, 2023.