This Week In Photography Books – Brian Ulrich

by Jonathan Blaustein

I feel bad for kids today. Teen-agers in particular. There is no privacy anymore. No secrets. It’s impossible to grow through one’s awkward moments out of the camera’s gaze. If I had to worry about my worst habits and styles living forever in a Facebook post, I’d probably move to Plum Village and become a monk.

Am I exaggerating? Not really. You see, I grew up in the 80′s, that famous decade now fetishized daily in the mainstream media. (Have you seen the trailer for that new Tom Cruise movie? Yes, people, we have a new definition of irony. The king of the 80′s, who actually managed to get it right back then, parodying the entire farce in a fake rocker outfit. Please.)

Back then, I actually sported a mullet and braces at the same time. Yes, photographic evidence exists, but I suspect my parents will set a high price. My style was so bad, I wore a day-glo ski jacket for two years. My first earring hole got infected, so I went back to the mall to have it punched again. That’s right, the mall.

Was there ever a more American invention than the shopping mall? I believe it sprung to life in Houston, which makes sense to me now that I’ve visited. Who wants to try on the new Tommy Hilfiger button-down when you’re covered in a sheen of humidity-induced sweat? Not me. Not anyone. So the air-conditioned, sequestered, shopping-only zone was born.

The mall used to be the coolest thing in the world. (Again, this is a world that approved of rat tails and shoulder pads.) My parents would drop me off for a few hours, and my friends and I would search out others of our own kind: with our own two eyes. Clearly, that youth-mating-ritual is obsolete. (OMG, u r @ the fuud kort? B rite ther.)

And what of malls? Do they still reign? Not exactly. I’m sure the Beverly Center in LA still has its swagger, and I’ve never seen the Mall of America, so I’ll reserve judgment there. But in general, I think the safe answer is no. They’re an anachronism, like the myth of American Exceptionalism.

In fact, I think Brian Ulrich’s “Dead Mall” photos are some of the most compelling documents of 21st C America that we have. Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and say that his “Dark Store” Circuit City photographs are the enduring images from the Great Recession. (The crumbled KFC sign picture is up there too.)
Seriously, what could say more about the fallacy of endless consumption than those eerie, empty boxes, glowing from within? Yes, the stores are vacant and worthless, but let’s keep that electricity running. (Pictures can indeed communicate better than words, sometimes.)

The images turn up at the end of “Is This Place Great Or What,” Mr. Ulrich’s new monograph, recently published by Aperture and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The book is blue, which seems a bit random, and opens with historical images of a bygone American era, which seems odder still. At the very least, it sets the scene.

The book covers Mr. Ulrich’s “Copia” series, which has taken up the last decade or so of his life, broken down into convenient sections: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. Each investigates a different facet of America’s ubiquitous consumer culture. It’s the first book I’ve reviewed, I believe, where you can see the artist’s clear improvement as you turn the pages.

The initial series, from early in the last decade, depicts life inside the world of consumption, before the bubble burst. People push shopping carts through Costco, Target and Home Depot. We see crucifixes, big screen TVs, guns, and spilt milk. All smart, but slightly obvious symbols. The pictures feel grabbed, and a little naughty. The compositions are well done, but also a bit arbitrary. Good work, for sure, but it feels like he was just beginning to sort out his vision.

Next comes “Thrift,” which shows more of how the other half lives. There are some real gems here, true keepers. The room full of useless computers, the racks of empty plastic hangers, the barren garage with an asymmetrical Britney Spears poster. Sharply observed, and definitely more visceral than the first section. Mr. Ulrich was starting to hit his groove.

Finally, we come to “Dark Stores,” the project that rightfully made the artist’s career. Powerful stuff, this. The global economy almost broke completely during the creation of “Copia,” and it shows. Desolate parking lots, empty stores, and the sorriest looking abandoned Toys-R-Us I ever did see. These photos are as well crafted as they are well seen. The symbols resonate, the eye dances around the rectangle, and the physical impact of the disillusionment is palpable. These photographs will endure.

Bottom Line: An artist’s evolution, with some brilliant images

To purchase “Is This Place Great Or What” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. I really enjoy this project as a whole. A lot of these images were coming out while I was a student at Columbia in Chicago, and we studied it quite a bit. I really enjoyed your write up Jonathan. Thanks.

  2. Nathan Padilla Bowen

    Nice post and great commentary. As often as not, I find I don’t agree with your selections, but I know that is both a matter of taste and context. I like both the evolution of the images and the way you put the whole thing in context here.

  3. I really like APE’s lean and mean content… except for Jonathan’s all-too-personal book reviews of boring half-ass books.

  4. Twenty years from now when he gets to know his proctologist, I’m sure we’ll all get to read the details of their “relationship”.

  5. Dear Null (and Void): Jonathan produces some of the best content on this site, all of it original. If you don’t have the intelligence, insight or maturity to recognize that, then that’s simply your own loss. Simpleton.

    • Very kind of you to say, Cynthia.
      The commenters like Null don’t seem to realize that by admitting they read the column all the time, (the only way they’d know what I write about each week,) they undercut their argument about its lack of value. People who aren’t interested in something typically don’t take the time to read it. I suspect we’ll be battling anonymous haters for some time yet, as long as we continue to do good work.

      Best wishes,

      jb

    • Well stated Cynthia. I do believe that all the contributors provide a very specific focal point to help those who struggle in the industry to find their own way. When people like Rob provide an avenue to be successful it is an investment towards the continued longevity of a field that others are trying to eliminate i.e. the citizen journalist.

      Null it seems as if you are a troll (yes this is overtly inimical).

      Nice write up JB. I think, since I worked in a field the gave me access to the scenes of decay, it has drawn me to Brians work. Oh,I’ll blame the troll remark on my pain management meds.