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Plenty of Nothing

Brian Ulrich describes his 10-year Copia project examining American consumer culture
Pep Boys 3

Brian Ulrich Photographer

Pep Boys 3 2009. Brian Ulrich (American, b. 1971). Ultrachrome inkjet print, printed 2011; 50.8 x 61 cm. Collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell. © Brian Ulrich


When the attacks of September 11, 2001, happened I had just moved to Chicago to attend graduate school in photography. Until then my work had been very personal, but now I felt compelled to seek out strangers and unfamiliar places. As I did, I began to notice a theme emerging: a kind of compulsive consumerism, as if the natural response to the tragedy was to retreat into total selfishness.

I started going to stores to see if I could actually find people who were doing “patriotic shopping.” I think part of my fascination was having parents who had grown up in Germany and dealt with World War II and its aftermath. A lot of that was really unbelievable, really difficult. But here in the United States it was like our recovery was based on how well we could fulfill our own desires. So I thought it would be interesting to try to build a project around that idea. Thus began the “Retail” chapter of a larger project called Copia, from the Latin for “plenty.” That first group of images focuses mainly on interior retail spaces and the people who shop or work there.

Around 2006 I began to think more about “Where does all this stuff go?” People suggested I photograph landfills and junk piles, but I felt like that was too much out of sight/out of mind. What became more appealing were thrift stores—places where this stuff would reappear and continue as a part of daily life. So the “Thrift” chapter explores that world. It’s fascinating: in the Las Vegas Walmart spring goods are in aisle 6, and spring goods are in aisle 6 in a Walmart in Indiana, and in aisle 6 in New York, but the thrift-store environment has no such top-down order. Maybe all the orange shirts are together, maybe all the shiny things.


Untitled (Shoes)

Untitled (Shoes) 2006. Ultrachrome inkjet print, printed 2011; 121.9 x 152.4 cm. Collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell.© Brian Ulrich 


The people in the thrift stores had no problem understanding why someone would want to photograph this; they got it right away. The work became more and more about the people—there were volunteers, people fulfilling community service requirements, participating in rehab programs. In the “Retail” chapter, the portraits of people were overwhelmed by the setting, by the goods, but in “Thrift” that was turned around and the personality of the individual moved forward.

By 2008 I was wondering what to do next. I went back and reread some of my writings from 2003 on how this was really all about an economic model based on unsustainability. I had made a few images of closed big box stores, which were kind of hard to find in 2003. But in 2008 that suddenly became easy. Value City stores were all closing. Circuit City was going under. So the third section is called “Dark Stores, Ghost Boxes, and Dead Malls.”

In one way it was incredibly sad because people lost jobs and entire neighborhoods were sucked down as each cluster of big boxes closed up, but I have to admit I was also excited—because every time one of those places closed, it proved I was right. These places that had seemed to be the center of so much power were just cast aside.


Cleveland, OH

Cleveland, OH 2003. Chromogenic process color print, printed 2007; 110.6 x 132.1 cm. Gift of Katherine Solender and William E. Katzin 2007.170. © Brian Ulrich 


For four years beginning in 1997 I had a job at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the installation department. As an installer, you spend a lot of time waiting for someone to arrive—a curator, the designer, maybe the director—and while I was waiting I’d be staring at the Manet or the Caravaggio, whatever was there. There’s a picture in the “Thrift” series that’s a direct reference to a Cleveland painting. I was setting up the shot and this lady was posing with her head in her hand in a certain way and I thought to myself, “Oh my God, there’s Heraclitus sitting right here in the back of a thrift shop in Minneapolis.”

Most recently I was in China to oversee the press run of my book, Is This Place Great or What. At one point the son of the factory owner was talking to me as we tried to adjust the color, and he offered that they had matched the color of some boxes that appear in one of my photos to the actual boxes. It took me a minute to figure out that he meant this factory had printed the original boxes that were in the photo, so they just brought out a sample to be sure the photo matched the box! That was very resourceful, but not quite right. One of the reasons my photographs are hard to print is they’re made in terrible light, often with a fluorescent cast, and the colors don’t actually look like the real thing. The factory was much more than a book printer; all at the same time they were making product boxes, printing magazines, doing catalogues for the Met, printing my book. This factory had probably produced a lot of the consumer packaging I had photographed. To most of the workers there was no difference between a package for a Toy Story 3 action figure and a Playboy cover and a box for chocolates—just a bunch of stuff for America.


Fire Drill

Fire Drill Main Choice Production Plant, Dongguan, China, 2011


But over time, and a little bit to my surprise, the people working most closely with me began to really get what the photographs were about. It’s still a foreign concept in China, that something gets old and you just throw it away. There’s no difference between new and old there; everything gets reused and repurposed. It’s not even imaginable that you would want something just because it’s new. It struck me that in China right now there is no sense of the kind of desire that is manufactured in the U.S. to make people want things. 

Photography is an incredibly powerful medium in that people either automatically believe or really want to believe what they see, and photography has been right at the center of consumer culture; it’s the very language of manufacturing desire. I view my work as an exciting extension of what photography can still do, especially when contrasted with the proliferation of bad, dumb images—for example, how many point-and-shoot photos have you seen since the economic crisis that have a big “For Sale” sign in the foreground and a blurry house in the background? Because photography has been complicit in the entire enterprise, I love the idea of using the same medium to subvert it. 


Cleveland Art, September/October 2011