On January 18, curator emeritus Tom Hinson returned to the museum to share his thoughts on one of his most recent curatorial projects: the exhibition Brian Ulrich: Copia—Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001–2011. Hinson led audience members on an intimate tour of the exhibition as he pointed out personal favorites from the show, which he described as “a thumbnail sketch looking at consumerism at the beginning of the 20th century.”
This is the first major exhibition for Ulrich, a rising star in the photography world who boasts close ties to Northeast Ohio as an alumnus of the University of Akron and former employee of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Organized into three sections, the exhibition charts the life cycle of modern consumerism—progressing from images of shoppers at brightly lit retail outlets to workers in overflowing thrift store backrooms to desolate shots of vacant warehouses and closed businesses—while creating a portrait of a nation emotionally and economically ill at ease.
Conceived in 2001 the wake of September 11, just as Americans were being urged to show their patriotism by loosening their purse strings, Brian Ulrich began his Copia project by taking furtive pictures of shoppers in predominantly middle-class venues. The resulting images reveal a population seemingly overwhelmed by an abundance of products and choice. “These are not portraits in a conventional sense…there’s no eye contact” Hinson explained of the Retail section of the series, but Ulrich nevertheless depicts his subjects “in a very sensitive way—there’s not a lot of irony here, as you would find among many contemporary photographers.” But, he added, there’s “always a bit of wit and humor” in Ulrich’s work, pointing out a photograph of a glowing “cash and redemption” sign titled Las Vegas, NV 2003.
Hinson stopped to highlight two large photographs mounted side-by-side: Lyndhurst, OH 2004, portraying a fully-stocked gun case (taken at the Dick’s Sporting Goods at Legacy Village, Hinson confided), and Cleveland, OH 2003, an image of a young child among rows of stuffed animals (from the Disney store in Terminal Tower). Although these images weren’t intended as a pair, Hinson confessed that he always thought of the two images as a diptych: “toys for adults, and toys for children.”
“Not only does Brian Ulrich deal with the conceptual and intellectual issues of this subject matter, he also happens to be an excellent photographer,” Hinson explained as he led viewers to the Thrift section of the exhibition, which he described as a collection of “serious portraits and very complex still lifes.” Unlike the Retail portion of the series, these head-on photographs of thrift-store workers and patrons were taken with their subjects’ knowledge and reflect a shift in Ulrich’s methodology.
By the time he reached the Dark Stores section of his project, the people Ulrich encountered were mostly squatters or loiterers in the abandoned malls that dominate this last and most haunting portion of the Copia series. Most of these pictures were taken at night, using very long exposures, and many times Ulrich would enter a condemned building to set up a shot and find sections of the store on fire. Hinson left his audience in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken, 2009, a massive shot of a giant, promotional KFC bucket that had fallen from its perch and rolled into a grassy lot: “a great iconic image” of the lifespan of these stores.
Brian Ulrich: Copia—Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores, 2001–2011 will be on display in the east wing photography galleries until February 26, 2012.