For years now, Brian Ulrich has been documenting consumption in its various forms. In fact, Brian’s work is probably the most complete survey of the landscape of consumption. His most recent show, still on view at Julie Saul Gallery (until July 3) presents images from its two most recent parts, Thrift and Dark Stores.
Even after seeing his latest images - the dead malls and empty shops shown in Dark Stores - Thrift still is my favourite part of whatever the full collection of his work will eventually be known for. I have always thought that Brian’s portrayal of people inside the various stores really made his images stand out. Regardless of the insanity of some of the places they are in, Brian’s subjects come across as human beings - always a bit fragile, often a bit lost, always treated with a lot of respect and empathy. And it is this empathy that makes Brian’s work so special and that will make it last. We are, after all, all consumers - whether we like it or not.
There are photographers who simply stick their cameras into people’s faces to create unflattering portraits of them shopping, thinking they are making profound statement about consumerism. But if you think about it, all they do is to make fun of people in a way that shows that they really don’t care. So why should we care?
I don’t think I have seen this addressed anywhere, but I think what makes Brian’s work so special is that he stays away from this kind of photography. It’s not done for effect. It’s not about grossing people out. It’s not about cheap laughs. It’s not about the surface. It’s about us, it’s about often not even having the option to go anywhere else other than the mall. It’s about what we do to ourselves.
This extreme concern for his subjects is most masterfully executed in Thrift (even though Copia, the series shot in malls, contains a fair amount of truly wonderful portraits).
Despite the fact that images from Dark Stores are part of this show, it might be a bit premature to say something about it. After all, it is work in progress. I do think, though, that the Dark Stores prints were too small - in fact, if the print sizes had been reversed (Dark Stores large, Thrift small) that might have worked better. Dark Stores is one of those projects that seems to require a certain print size.
Either way, Thrift and Dark Stores is a wonderful snapshot of parts of what will ultimately be probably the most complete and lasting portrayal of American consumerism; and I’m looking forward to the big show (and book, of course) that will show everything.