Brian Ulrich: On Creating, Funding and Sustaining a Long-term Fine-Art Project

Interview by Conor Risch

© Brian Ulrich. Image courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery.
"Black River Falls, WI, 2006," from the exhibition “Brian Ulrich: Copia—Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001-2011."

More than a decade ago, photographer Brian Ulrich, then a graduate student, began creating a body of work that examined American consumerism as a reflection of our culture as a whole. He started by surreptitiously photographing middle-class shoppers at malls, and at large chain retailers like Target and Home Depot for a series titled "Retail." Later, for the series "Thrift," he photographed thrift stores “as a narrative for poverty.” And as the country descended into the Great Recession, Ulrich traveled around the country photographing abandoned stores and shopping malls for a series titled "Dark Stores."

Ulrich exhibited his work extensively before opening a retrospective exhibition, “Brian Ulrich: Copia—Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001–11,” at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011 and publishing a monograph with Aperture. The exhibition traveled to the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2012, and is currently showing at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

Over the decade, the project has lead Ulrich to unexpected places, and opened a variety of opportunities and assignments for him. Since the first retrospective opened, Ulrich has added new twists to his project: “Relics” includes objects and archival images from malls and other retail stores; “Great Prosperity” includes press negatives Ulrich found by trolling eBay. “There are these wonderful 12” x 5” negatives from various press archives that are really powerful [and] described the period from post-World War II up until the late 60s,” Ulrich says. “You see the whole arc of the manufacture of desire, the middle class boom, this huge economic growth.”

PDN spoke with Ulrich on the day his exhibition opened at the Haggerty Museum to find out how he created, funded and found an audience for his work.

PDN: How did you develop your visual strategy for "Retail"?

Brian Ulrich: Initially it was a very practical thing. I didn’t have permission to [make photographs in retail stores]. And I wanted to make pictures that were surreptitious and candid, because I was really interested narratives that arise from careful examination – in this case ones that examined the subtle moments between purchaser/buyer, need and desire, the environment of the store and the resulting behavior it shaped. I also loved the fact that the photographs can really allow you to scrutinize the consumer experience, which is not an experience meant to looked at in that manner. There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning to come across a process that worked, which ended up with simply using a medium-format camera with a waist-level viewfinder.

PDN: What about the medium-format, surreptitious images you were creating worked for you visually and conceptually?

BU: There was a vibration between an almost interior landscape picture and an intense and personal picture in which we’re right up front to an individual and we can really reflect on them in that space. Even the vantage point of the camera is in line with where you would be if you were standing there. That came from a strategy of sitting in one place and picking a great backdrop, and waiting for something to come into that space and occur.

The other thing that was important to me in "Retail," was that the pictures achieved an optical fidelity. I wanted you to feel as if you were really there and were able to examine and scrutinize.

PDN: How did you approach "Thrift"?

BU: "Thrift" changed things, because the stores were happy to let me come in and make pictures; they understood why I would want to do that. But there was also the problem of photographing junk and throwaways, and how do you do that in a way that asks people to really consider it? So that’s where the 4x5 camera started to take over, and I could spend a lot more time and work much more in a language of still life [and] portraiture.

PDN: How did your portraiture change from "Retail" to "Thrift"?

BU: I realized the main characters of the Thrift series [weren’t] the shoppers, but [rather] the people who worked in the places, who were volunteers, or who were working off a community service [sentence] for petty crime or something. Or even kids who felt like they were activists working at these places to deal with the environmental problems—those people are receiving this massive amount of goods and their job is to determine whether or not [something] has value. They seemed [to be] the important people in that narrative. Those portraits became much more studied and much more related to classic portraiture.

PDN: When did you decide the next step in the project would be to photograph the "Dark Stores"?

BU: That was an idea that I remember writing down when I started "Thrift." [Those photographs] were in many ways based on a similar principle, which was [that an] economic system that is based on [constant] growth is bound to have this fallout. I remember writing that the logical conclusion of the project would be the stores shuttered and closed. But "Thrift" is a part of that too, because …it’s where everything that was shiny and new ends up…. which is also representative of the ideas of planned obsolescence and of course representative of different economies. ["Thrift" also] talks about the way our relationship to objects changes so rapidly. The idea that an object is used and therefore loses a certain degree of aura or desire is really interesting to me. That idea also factors into the "Dark Stores," because it’s not just an object that loses its aura, but an actual architectural site.

PDN: What is the significance of pattern and repetition in your images?

BU: What started to become really apparent to me at the beginning of this project, but also as a person living in the world, is that cultures get really homogenized and it’s specifically tied to this way in which retail culture and consumer culture have expanded, so that the Target in Indiana is no different than the Target in Washington State or Schenectady or wherever.

In Chicago they recently opened up a Target in the former Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, this amazing, fantastic architectural feat, a [Louis] Sullivan building. I was kind of excited by the idea of what Target could do in that space because it’s so unique. And when you go inside they basically made it a Target, which is to say that even the wonderfully art deco, ornate columns have been spray painted white so that they disappear into the glowing-box light of the space. [My] emphasis on form and repetition comes from all that. It was important to use that idea, especially in "Retail" and throughout the whole series, whether it's the patternation of the computer monitor pile in the "Thrift" pictures, or the rows of wire hangers, or in the facades of the buildings themselves [in Dark Stores].

PDN: You also use a lot of signage in your compositions. When did you develop that?

BU: I remember when I was still in grad school, which is where this project began, one of my professors, Bob Thall, used to give me a really hard time about cropping text. He said, “You’re not paying attention enough to everything that’s happening in the frame.” All of a sudden it was this idea: “Wait a second, yeah, there are all these messages happening.”

The messages become really important, because that is one of the most obvious strategies for trying to effect or manipulate or transform the experience of not just the consumer, but also the people who work in the place. We got the title of the book from the specific photograph where you’re in a back room looking at these doors that lead out to the showroom and somebody has crudely stenciled “Is this place great or what!” over the doors. And it’s not a question for them, it’s an exclamation mark. Which fascinates me to no end, not just because of what it is and how wonderfully esthetic it looks, but also the idea: How do you convince people for minimum wage to not just do their job well but to believe in an ideology? That’s where the text becomes huge, and it goes all the way, even into "Thrift" and certainly into "Dark Stores," which was a kind of fun way to flip it on itself, because in some cases the text was still there even when it was removed.

PDN: Have you had any complaints from subjects of your "Retail" photographs?

BU: I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard, I guess. I think part of that comes from the fact that I’m not trying to point out any duped shopper. This project is certainly not about trying to shame anyone. Not only do I not find that all that interesting, I think it’s kind of a horrible use of photography—the whole “people of Walmart” thing—but I also don’t think that’s an effective strategy to get people to think about their own role in these environments.

So I really do try to make the pictures, especially with people in them, look beautiful in a photographic, artistic, esthetic sense, where there is something to them or they do function like portraits [that make] you want to know more about the person, because that’s of course what pulls us into the narrative of the picture.

I think the “people of Walmart” thing is just this ridiculously rampant poverty-shaming that’s going on, and unfortunately that kind of stuff happens a lot.

PDN: The show that originated at the Cleveland Art Museum in 2011 is currently up at the Haggerty Museum, and the work continues to resonate with people. Why do you think it’s had this longevity?

BU: One of the reasons that it initially had such a big impact with people was because [retail shopping is] such a common experience. I don’t know if I would lay claim to this necessarily, but I don’t know if people had seen a comprehensive version of what that looked like, and what it looked like in such a specific and esthetic way. It seemed to reverberate with people from when I put my first website together [in 2004]. The "Dark Stores" were probably the most difficult. When we started showing that work in 2008 and 2009, people had a hard time looking at it, because it was so indictive. But now there’s this distance between it [and present day]. I can only imagine what the project will look like in 15 years. It’s the first decade of the 21st century; even that is interesting.

For a time I worked at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and I used to just stay late every night digging through all those archives of photographers’ work, and it was such a powerful lesson that these things could slowly add up to something, and it could slowly transform over time. And some work needs a lot of time. I like how that happens, I like how the work changes.

There’s another part, specifically with my project, where we have such a connection to these places because they’re so embedded into our consciousness, they’re so much of our environment. It’s why we feel a little bit sad about the "Dark Stores." I don’t necessarily feel that bad about them, but I do understand why some people say that…. These are the places where we all congregate and get together. This is where the human experience happens, and that’s why it is a kind of interesting indicator of what’s happening in US culture and of course how this idea of American culture has been exported or has been looked at or transformed into others’ cultures over time.

PDN: What have been the keys to getting the work supported?

BU: I’ve been very lucky in that regard. It’s very important to me for the work to have a life, so I’ve always worked hard to have the work exist in all these different conversations, not just [those about] photography. The work talks about economics, it talks about sociology and anthropology, and so I want to have conversations with people who are interested in that as well as art and photography.

PDN: Did you just reach out to people in each field that might have an interest?

BU: Yes, what’s been interesting about digital culture, or what some people call convergence culture, is that we have access to so many different specialists that have a lot of information about something. That could be the dead mall, or the psychology of the consumer from an advertising point of view, or it can be about architecture, it could be about commercial real estate. My work is tapping into all that stuff, so I want to reach out to people and ask them what they think. That’s been a really big part of how the work has lived in the world, it takes a lot of research. But it’s also really gratifying when it works because the work changes and gets informed.

In terms of support, this whole project—the book that was published by Aperture and the exhibition that started at the Cleveland Museum of Art—really came from two people, Fred and Laura Bidwell, two collectors in northeast Ohio. I met them originally because they sponsored a lecture series at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, where I went to undergrad. They brought me to do a lecture there, and that started the conversation. Fred’s in advertising so we had a lot to talk about. We developed a relationship over time and [they] would visit the studio once in a while when I was still in Chicago. In 2010 I was at Fotofest in Houston and Fred was there with [Cleveland Art Museum photography curator] Barbara Tannenbaum. I showed them the early version of a maquette of the book and Fred was like, “Well let’s do this.” And I was like, “I was told it’s not supposed to be that easy.” Which of course it wasn’t. The actual making of the book and the prints is one of the craziest experiences I’ve gone through.

PDN: You also won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Were there other important grants?

BU: The Guggenheim was one of the first really big things in that sense. Other than that, there was an Illinois Arts Council grant. There was a small grant that I received while I was at Columbia College as a student, a Jack Jaffee Award, which sponsors graduate research there. But really not a lot. My work’s very comprehensive, so in that sense it’s always been difficult to summarize it in whatever the required small amount of pictures are for a grant [application]. Or perhaps I’m really not good a writing about my work. But I haven’t had the best grant luck.

PDN: Except for that one.

BU: Except for one of the best. That was quite an affirmation to get [a Guggenheim Fellowship]. When I got out of grad school I got some really great advice from a woman named Sarah Hasted, who is a photography dealer now: “It doesn’t matter if they don’t like it, just show it to them.” So I would make trips to New York and just try and get the work in front of people and it didn’t necessarily matter if it was editorial or if it was an art gallery or it was a collector. It was a kind of introduction. It didn’t necessarily matter if they said they didn’t like it or want to do anything with it at the time. A lot of great things came out of those meetings. Early on the New York Times Magazine was super supportive, Kathy Ryan, and at the time Kira Pollock [now at TIME] was there, and they were just really excited about the work and they gave me some of my first editorial jobs. I did a lot of work for Wired magazine; [former director of photography] Zana Woods gave me some of the greatest assignments, and I also understood that it was a really great way to get out into a different part of the world to continue working on my work. If the assignment was two days, I could make it four and work on my things once their things were done. That stuff was crucial because those were like mini fellowships. And then really it wasn’t until 2006 that I started selling some prints here and there, and of course that made a huge difference too.

PDN: What have you learned in your decade working on this project that you would pass onto other photographers?

BU: One of my great mentors and friends Dawoud Bey would say to us early on as grad students, “You have to remember that what you’re conceivably doing here is signing up for life to do this thing.” Which was wonderful advice. Terrifying advice, but wonderful. It asks you to take a lot of responsibility, but it also gave you the idea that this doesn't all have to happen tomorrow or even next week. What you’re doing is committing to something and committing to it so much that you’re willing to see it through no matter how long it seems.

The other thing that’s been really great about doing a long-term project is that it’s not necessarily a success or failure to have one thing happen or another thing happen, or to have one great picture and then have a bunch of bad pictures. The whole thing becomes a process. You pay a lot of attention to the work and it really takes you places. Crawling through the ceiling of a dead mall is not something I expected to have happen. But the idea has become so powerful and interesting and important to me that it’s really important to listen to that and pay attention to that. Those things are really what it’s all about. The career things and the successes are wonderful, and they’re the result of a lot of people’s efforts and hard work, but ultimately there is no other luxury like being able to stand in a parking lot somewhere in the world and wait for the light to do the right things. Nobody else has that job. And then you talk to people who don’t have that job and they tell you about their job and you realize, “Wow, this is really quite [a] profound thing that I’m able to do.”

“Brian Ulrich: Copia—Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001-2011” is showing through May 18 at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University.

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