From big-box stores, thrift shops to dead malls, photographer Brian Ulrich has captured the US landscape of consumption for a decade—unflatteringly but never without empathy. Lynn Saville prompts him to elaborate on his vision and travels.
Photographer Brian Ulrich has worked for a number of years on a project titled Copia, which explores not only the everyday activities of shopping, but the wider economic, cultural, social, and political implications of commercialism. Ulrich’s first monograph, Copia, was published in 2006 by Aperture.
What is the relationship between photography and consumer culture? This was an important question I wanted to explore with Ulrich, considering his examination of “the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live.” I also wanted to explore the twists and turns of Ulrich’s (in the words of Robert Frost) road “less traveled by.” This is the road that took him from a childhood exploration of a Long Island mall through college in Akron, Ohio, with its downtown of “giant, empty buildings,” through rebellions and epiphanies in college and graduate school, and into the transformative experience of 9/11. As we talked, I came to appreciate how Ulrich’s quirky personal route gave him insight into the road down which our whole culture travels, namely the broad highway of overconsumption.
Lynn Saville You come from North Port, New York? Would you consider that suburbia?
Brian Ulrich Yes. Growing up in Long Island, we were close to the Walt Whitman mall, which is incredibly ironically named. When I was a kid, it was a big deal—the first kind of trip without my parents—taking a super long bus ride to this mall with my brother, sister, and friends. We didn’t have any money, so we weren’t going to buy anything. It was just what you did. It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest that I encountered the first giant, big-box shopping store. I could not believe the size of the shopping carts and the extra-wide shopping aisles.
LS So it was kind of a culture shock. You went to the Midwest as an undergrad?
BU Yes, to the University of Akron, in Ohio.
LS What attracted you to the Midwest?
BU A friend of mine had moved to Akron. He told me, “You gotta come check this place out, it’s totally amazing.” The downtown was full of all these giant, empty buildings, like the old B.F.Goodrich building. I loved that you could do almost anything there, like skating parks inside buildings. In Akron, I went to school as a graphic design major and I was terrible at it because I couldn’t draw well.
LS How did you make the leap from graphic design to photography?
BU I signed up for all these advanced graphic design classes that I didn’t even have the prerequisites for. The teacher said, “You haven’t even passed the first, the intro graphic design class. You need to go talk to the people at the front office.” So I go up there and they ask, “Do you want to take this photography class?” And I was like “Sure, whatever.” And I got thrown into this amazing photography class, with this amazing woman, Pat Bishop. In the second class, I was supposed to have brought film I had shot. I told her I hadn’t taken any pictures, but I thought I’d just go do that now. (laughter) She said, “Are you kidding me? You come to my class totally unprepared and then you tell me what you’re going to do? Just leave!” I was so angry because no one had ever done this to me before. I said to myself, Fine, I’ll go make some effing photographs for these people, and try to do everything wrong: I’m not going to look through the camera, I’m not going to focus, I’m not going to pay any attention. And somewhere in this tantrum of rebellion, I started to really love photography.
LS I guess that, sometimes, anger leads to art.
BU It was around that time that I had a bicycle accident. I was riding my bike doing these big, long wheelies down this hill. (laughter) I think what happened—I don’t even really know—was that I must have fallen and hit my head, and I was just out—out cold. It was this gray day, I was in the middle of the street, but I thought I was at home sleeping because I was having this weird dream: I was walking around that area, and I was seeing everything in black and white and in still images. I’ve read that certain kinds of concussions can produce this if you hit your head just right—don’t try this at home, folks. I finally came to in the ambulance. I was so perplexed by this experience that I started trying to make photographs of it and re-create it to understand what had happened.
It was really the first time I became interested in the idea that what photography presented was, on the one hand, a distinct way of understanding your experience in the world and, on the other hand, a totally fabricated illusion not based on anything real. It was that kind of paradox to me. I kept trying to talk to people about reality/not-reality, but no one really knew what I was talking about. (laughter) And I changed my major to photography that semester, got straight A’s, and graduated with a BFA in photography.
LS Could you describe one or two of the images that you were doing at that time?
BU We started really experimenting, taking the film out of the canister while it was in the changing room. I was loading it into the developing tank, and I would smash the film and crunch it, leaving all these weird, interesting lines that became sometimes formal, sometimes abstract. At one point, I took some portraits of my roommates and I showed them to Pat Bishop, and she said, “I want you to do a few more of these; I’m really curious about the way you’re making portraits.” So, I started making portraits of my friends.
LS Then you applied to several schools; but you specifically wanted to go to Chicago?
BU Right away, I was thinking about graduate school. I was riding high. I had this really great BFA show, with a huge installation in a former brothel house in Akron. I applied to all those grad schools, but it didn’t work out because one of my references didn’t send in the recommendation. I was devastated. So, I just shelved it for a while. I moved back to New York, had three job interviews, and was hired by the Howard Greenberg Gallery. About four years later, I applied to Bard and Columbia College (Chicago), where I did go to study. I felt Chicago was the place for photography.
LS I read that you were really interested in how the nation reacted to 9/11. How did that affect your work?
BU On 9/11 we were supposed to register for classes at Columbia College, and I got up to go downtown and just happened to turn on the television. I didn’t leave the room all day. I was calling my parents, making sure my dad was not in the city, all those kinds of things. I walked out after a day and a half of watching this stuff on television and the air was different, and the way people were looking at each other was different. It dawned on me that this grieving process was experienced by the entire culture. I was no longer interested in my autobiography project, I was only interested in strangers. Usually, when something horrible happens in your personal life, when you’re going through this awful breakup or have no money, the worst part about it is that no one understands and you have to spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to explain to people what you’re going through to get some degree of empathy or sympathy. But now you’d be sitting on the train and make eye contact with someone and they’d just shake their head, like shared grieving. Everybody was just having conversations everywhere, strangers. It was awful that it needed this tragic circumstance, but it did show the amazing potential in our society—it can be that communal. I thought, I wonder if I can photograph people’s empathy or emotion? It’s a very abstract thing. So I would go out and photograph strangers, and I was trying to make street photographs that were not cynical but sweet, where people were touching or reaching out to each other. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taken photographs of strangers before, really. It was hard.
LS Did the TrashCam pictures come out of that?
BU Yeah. I love this kind of democratic space: everybody has to use a trash can. If I sit there long enough, people are going to come up and engage with that space. It’s something we all have to do. Of course, it got me thinking about the whole idea of consumption and waste.
LS I notice a lot of tenderness and humor in your work. What drew you to this kind of street photography?
BU A love for the idea of the street as a theater, or as a setting for a social drama. I’m a huge fan of the pictures Harry Callahan did on the street, and of early Joel Meyerowitz pictures, and of course Garry Winogrand.
LS Did you go out of your way to be incognito?
BU No, I never do.
LS Was the TrashCam series first project after 9/11?
BU Yeah. And that led me to Retail. While I was doing the TrashCam series, this big shift took place in the cultural dialogue: from patriotic solidarity —we have to pull together and support each other—to a massive negativity and fearmongering spread by the media: It’s coming, the bad guys are gonna get you next, look out, buy duct tape, buy plastic for your windows, anthrax is in the mail. We went from this really wonderful moment of healing each other to a total fear and suspicion of everything. This was the most irresponsible, negative shift. The President said, “If we’re really going to fight these terrorists, we need to go out and fight with our credit cards. Buy buy buy, and build our economy so no one can ever . . .” Right then, it dawned on me just how powerful this consumer model was in controlling people, that we’ve moved into a phase of total retail economy, with the entire well-being of our citizens based on how much money we have to buy things that we don’t necessarily need. Aren’t we smarter than that? And I went to photograph in the stores. Initially, it was easy to be cynical and think, Oh my god look at these horrific people, with their giant shopping carts, filling them with stuff. Then, I realized pretty quickly that it’s not always people’s fault. For a long time there has been a concerted effort by major retailers to eradicate all and any competition whatsoever. So it’s down to a small town with one giant Walmart.
LS With the Retail project, did you travel, or did you work mostly local?
BU With any of the other projects, I could probably do them in a 20-mile radius from my house. But with Retail, it was really important for me to prove that homogeneity exists. To do that, I needed to photograph Target in Indiana and Target in Las Vegas and Walmart in Chicago and Walmart in New York, if only to show that nothing’s different. There were a million times when I wondered, This is so stupid, why am I driving to the Walmart in Texas? The only reason I was going there was thinking, Well, there might be some different characters and different people and different region-specific things. But most of the time there weren’t.
LS And you had a show of this project?
BU Yeah, part of it became my MFA show at Columbia College. I started doing larger prints, like 30/40s. I’ve grown to be really interested in this idea of the fidelity of the image and how that impacts our understanding of it. Specifically with Retail, but also with a lot of other work, I wanted to present a kind of mirror in which we see ourselves. And that’s why the pictures could not be just cynical; they had to be empathetic, not just because I felt that way, but because I wanted the viewers to see themselves in the picture. So, it actually demands a high degree of self-awareness to look at the work and start to question your role in that activity, because we’re all there. Whether it’s the Apple store, or Bass Pro shops, or Target, we all end up in these places and are presented with the conundrum of, well, I don’t really want to buy another plastic thing from a third-world country, but it’s really cheap. I’m interested in these conflicts; they are happening in an art gallery as well as in a grocery store.
LS Would you consider this type of work documentary?
BU I think that word is overused, and it really applies so much better to film than photography. A much better word is propaganda. I wrote a paper on Lewis Hine in grad school, and, you know, there was no documentary when he was working. What dawned on me was that Hine was basically making propaganda. It worked to change child labor laws because it was propaganda for an organized group of people who were using the images to further their very specific agenda. And I thought, Of course it works that way, or else advertising would cease to exist. So, yeah, I think photography, today, has the opportunity to function as propaganda more than ever, and especially with photography’s sublimation into digital media. There’s the danger of distraction, though. For example, if I send you this weird picture of the guy picking his nose on the train, you can find out pretty easily if it’s real or faked. You might even be able to find the guy’s Facebook page, and once you start looking beyond the image, say to the Internet, for the answers to questions prompted by the photograph, it’s not just about photography anymore. It’s about something else, and photography loses its power to hold the viewer, almost demands that you move outside of the picture to answer those questions. So that’s why I try to have my work always referring back to me. My pictures don’t end up on weird websites probably because the visual language I’ve set up in the picture, the form, the project, the whole Copia, Retail, Thrift thing, always refers back to me, to my website. It retains my agenda or critique, I hope.
LS What made you go from the Retail project to the thrift store project, or were they going on at the same time?
BU Well, at a certain point they were happening at the same time. Retail I did from 2001–2006, Thrift was 2005–2008. Thrift came out of the question: What happens to all that stuff? It kind of wanders off into the parking lot, into people’s trunks, and then it zooms away. There’s this massive amount of consumer goods that’s being manufactured and bought and sold, but where does it go? What’s the meaning of it? And I started thinking about the thrift store as a kind of rest home, and as totally indicative of our fickleness in relation to these objects, which lose their glamour quite quickly. Once they move into the thrift store, they’re junk, and they’re ugly, and they’re used. It’s fascinating to me that all of a sudden the product has lost all its seduction, just because the context has changed. It’s still of some interest, but it doesn’t retain much of its glamour. I knew that I had to make the pictures in thrift stores and that I had to make them beautiful. Because I was photographing junk, and if I photograph junk and make it look like junk, you’re not going to enter into the language of the photograph. So, I was trying to make the photograph itself be the thing that seduces you, rather than the subject. I started doing much of this work with a 4 × 5 camera, and it was a lot easier to get access. Instead of just showing up and candidly taking pictures until somebody said something, I would call up places and say, “I’m working on this project about consumerism, and I’m doing these photographs.” And they’d respond, “Well you should come Tuesday morning because that’s when all our donations come in and we literally have the entire back room, from floor to ceiling, filled with stuff.”
But after Thrift, I was just feeling depressed and exhausted, wondering, What do I do next? I had made these photographs of closed buildings and vacated retail spaces back in 2005, when it was hard to find them. Now, all of a sudden, in May of 2008, it was really easy to find them because they were all going down. To me, it made sense that these places would fall. It was obvious that this kind of economy couldn’t sustain itself, that it would, at a certain point, collapse. I just never expected it to happen on such a grand scale. Most places die for a variety of reasons, but in the community, the dialogue around the closed mall often reverts to racism. I remember going to this mall in Akron and people would say, “You don’t want to go over there, that’s where the black people are, and the gangs.” And, I’d go there, and it’d be fine, it’s just a mall. Again, it became really indicative of these heavy urban problems that still exist. Why can’t it just be an economic reason? Why does it have to be something based on the fact that one cultural group is infringing on my cultural group?
LS Blame the other person.
BU Yes. Chicago Place mall I’d photographed in the very beginning of my Retail project. It was fascinating to me that in 2003 it was full of stores and thriving. I photographed people shopping in there, I took pictures of weird stuff, like these cheesy art shops. Now it’s seven stories of emptiness. I’ve been thinking about how the whole project makes all these references—for instance, to Dante’s Inferno—and this picture is very much one of the doorways into hell.
LS You have a nice variety of images given the fact that many people think that the corporate spaces are very boring. How did you come to have such a diversity of images?
BU It’s work, you know, it’s not easy, it is boring. You go to these places, and they’re ugly, and they’re not spectacular. The hard part of this project is figuring out where to point the camera. How am I going to get people to think about this idea? I have to make an interesting photograph. I have to pull them into a narrative that has an aesthetic basis.
LS I admire your use of the signage and text that appear in some of the pictures.
BU There’s a lot of scouting going on, too, through reading retail and industry business reports, real estate websites, economic news, and bankruptcy news reports. I pretty much stopped reading arts magazines because I needed the time for this research. Some days I’d sit for hours just building maps and trying to get an idea through Google street view, research, and Flickr. And then there are these great websites like deadmalls.com.
The whole Dark Stores, Ghost Boxes and Dead Malls title, those are actually retail industry terms for these spaces, which I really wanted to broadcast. It’s almost nihilistic, all this death. What’s funny, of course, is that the only thing that ultimately matters and means anything is the brand leaving. There’s this fascination with brands. It’s not about the absence of the structure, it’s about the absence of the brand. The brand still resonates in people’s minds, creating nostalgia for the time that was. This, to me, is indicative of how US history is kind of a mess, how our 20th-century history is based on these things, which are not meant to be historical at all. These places are supposed to be just temporary. They have to be easily wrecked, they have to crumble, they have to be disposed of. And although they’re not meant to last, we’re trying to hold on to them in our minds because we don’t have anything else.
LS Is your Copia project nearly ready?
BU This last year, after receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship, I’ve been working hard at making pictures for the Dark Stores series. I hate using the word “done” because I still have so many places on my map that I want to get to. What I’ve been working on for the last two months—scanning, editing, printing, and sequencing—is the Copia book, which covers the period from 2001–2010. It includes the three series Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. It’s this kind of large trajectory of the first ten years of the 21st-century. That’s what I’m hoping to publish soon.
LS Do you have a publisher?
BU I have people who are interested, I feel like I’m halfway. I’m kind of nuts about making sure that I didn’t miss anything.
LS So you still feel like you want to shoot some more?
BU Well, not only that, but starting at 2001, I’ve been going through every box of negatives, making sure I’m not overlooking a picture that could be pertinent now. It might have been less interesting at the time I shot it, but could all of a sudden be relevant because of something that’s going on now or because my recent pictures give it new meaning.
LS Did your political interest begin prior to 2001?
BU I’m glad you asked that because graduate school was really good for me in a lot of ways. Graduate school is the place where everybody’s asking, “What do you care about?” And of course you’re freaking out, like, I don’t know! (laughter) But, growing up, I was this punk rock kid who was a bit of an activist. I mean, I really was struck by ideas of changing society, you know, and talking about politics. And it was in grad school that it kind of hit me, what I actually care about—activism and what art can potentially do are truly important to me.
I remember this great book by Suzi Gablik, it’s called Conversations Before the End of Time, published in ’96. It consists of interviews with artists, curators, gallerists, and others, and she asks, “We’re almost at the new millennium and we’ve had all these years of art in our lives, but what has it done? Has it lived up to its promise to be the arbiter of good taste and social change and better values and fulfillment?” It’s amazing to see and read how people respond. Gablik talks about art being a catalyst for changing social and cultural ideas. That book had a big influence on my work and on me as a person. I hate when people say, “Oh, well, art doesn’t change anything.” I think that’s such bullshit. The whole history of art photography, especially, is linked to a dialogue about culture and the social world. Photography—and here I’m stressing this in a positive sense—is the ultimate propaganda machine. People will still believe a photograph even if it’s been photoshopped 9000 times. They want to believe in the illusion of the picture, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
For more of Ulrich’s work, head over to his website, notifbutwhen.com.
Photographer Lynn Saville’s work has been exhibited internationally. In 2009, Monacelli/Random House brought out a book of her color night photographs, titled Night/Shift, with an introduction by Arthur C. Danto. Visit her site www.lynnsaville.com.