Review: Is This Place Great Or What by Brian Ulrich


Book Reviews, Photobooks


What is there still left to say about consumerism? We all seem to agree that it is bad, that reckless consumption is the direct cause of many of our current problems, but we’re still very much engaged in it. Consumerism is what drives large parts of our economy: We don’t make things any longer, we buy them, ideally for very cheap. As such, consumerism is very abstract, though. We know what it feels like to consume, but we don’t really know what it looks like. And the images of some of the consequences of our consumerism - toxic wastelands here, or vast landfills there - are hard to connect with the shiny big-box stores where we buy our stuff. Brian Ulrich’s photographs, now published in Is This Place Great Or What, avoid tackling this gap. Instead, for the most part they focus on us, on people caught up in the act of consumption. (more)

I don’t know how many people will agree, but I’ve always thought of Brian first and foremost as a portrait photographer. It’s hard not to be affected by his portraits. Regardless of whether they show shoppers in big-box stores or in thrift shops, the photographs capture moments of loss, of bewilderment, of confusion, of brave attempts to get through this. We all know what that feels like. Regardless of how drawn one might be to the various products on sale at any of big-box store, the shopping experience itself is hellish. It brings us back to when we were children, when everything seemed so big and often so unsettling, if not threatening. As consumers, we are indeed treated like children because we aren’t really supposed to think about what we do - do we really need this item?

Brian’s photographs in the first part of Is This Place Great Or What - Retail - show people lost in a state of consumption, in a vast world filled with mass-produced kitsch and crap (flags, guns, carpets with animal motifs, etc.) And the door to the employment part is never far - employment for whatever minimum wage might be, because our version of consumerism cannot function unless those who work do it for next to nothing, without health benefits or workers rights.

The second part - Thrift - has Brian then look at the world of thrift stores, where yesterday’s goods are sold again, this time at a real bargain. Everything becomes a bit more dingy, the shine is gone, but the wheel of consumerism keeps turning. As a matter of fact, if you spend enough time at a thrift shop, you can piece together the post-war history of consumerism, with production sites moving across the globe, to wherever making stuff is cheapest. As before, we see people exposed to this part of the retail industry, shoppers and store employees alike. The portraits are more formal - a different camera, a different approach, and they’re as powerful - if not even more so - than those in Retail.

The last part - Dark Stores - falls a bit short for me. Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those large-format photographs of abandoned malls, of emptied and/or re-purposed stores. This is part of the story, of course, where the stores undergo the same fate as the stuff sold inside: Eventually, they’re tossed aside, to be replaced. But there is less of an opportunity for the portrait photographer to shine - the occasional example notwithstanding. Dark Stores suffers from the disconnect that photographs of landfills or toxic wastelands often suffer from - it’s hard to connect the images with one’s own experience.

It is well known that Is This Place Great Or What features photographs taken over the course of a decade. But this fact needs to be re-stressed: Here is a photographer willing to spend ten years of his life documenting one of the big issues of our times, an issue intimately related to many others (environmental issues, the state of labor/unemployment, debt, etc.). We’re all well-advised to look carefully at these photographs, because, ultimately, they are about us. Mindless consumption is not just bad for our wallets, it’s bad for our mental health, and it’s bad for our society.

Is This Place Great Or What, photographs by Brian Ulrich, essay by Juliet Schorr, 144 pages, Aperture, 2011