A Conversation with Brian Ulrich



Consumption and shopping are such integral parts of what we like to call our culture that very often, we do not realize the full extent of the whole complex any longer. But what does this fact really lead to? I first noticed the importance of shopping when I told American friends that on Sundays German shops are closed (or rather used to be closed since things are changing there). The standard question “But what do people do on a Sunday?” was accompanied by either bewildered or outright horrified facial expressions.

Brian Ulrich’s photography is centered on consumption and shopping, with him covering both shopping malls - maybe the most American of all experiences somebody could ever have - and thrift stores - places that I personally have been immensely fascinated with. I talked with Brian about the different aspects of his work.

Joerg Colberg: I guess from looking at your photos it is becoming more obvious why shopping malls so strictly disallow photography. When you go to a mall, how do you look for subjects or subject matter?

Brian Ulrich: It’s often much like the experience of shopping itself. There is so much visual stimuli in these spaces, to sort that out and keep in mind a concept or idea can be overwhelming. I’m simply ‘shopping’ for pictures. Many factors decide where and when. In the large big box retail stores, I’m almost always doing things candid, so foremost I look for a place where I sit or stand for a bit of time, as well as one that has an interesting backdrop and decent lighting. From there it’s simply whoever walks into that space. I’m shooting film and all handheld, so for pictures with people they have to pause, hold still, have no one walk in the way, etc… and of course have a specific expression I’m looking for, one where we ourselves can easily imagine getting inside the subjects’ heads. I would hope that looking at my pictures malls and stores would be more lenient on photographers… it’s more free advertising! In fact some stores do allow photography because it then becomes a tourist destination.


JC: Actually, that’s one of those things that I personally have failed to comprehend, how a store could become some sort of tourist attraction. And probably what lies behind that, I think, might be that I personally really do not like to go shopping. So when I look at many of the people in your photos I do see a lot of boredom, or of alienation - some of which might just be my projecting my own feelings into these people. But this brings me to my next question. I have to admit that I personally always feel inhibited to take a photo of someone when I think that if I was in the person’s shoes I wouldn’t feel all that great. This is probably a filter that you can’t allow yourself to have. Do you have any filters that prevent you from taking photos?

BU: Some time ago in the early stages of this project I met Martin Parr and showed him work. One of the things we talked about was to not censor yourself from making pictures. If you have an idea in your head for photographs, make them. I don’t have a filter but believe very strongly in what I’m doing and trying to do. I think people would assume that I’m making fun of them but I work hard to make pictures that do not, but ones that are beautiful and more empathetic (one of the reason I’m using the larger format cameras). I take a lot of pictures and have ones that are more than apologetic, ultimately these are edited out and I learn more from taking them and then editing them than simply not taking the picture.


JC: I’m assuming that some people must realize that you are taking photos. Or maybe not? What kind of reactions have you run into?

BU: With the Copia pictures, most people have no idea they’ve been photographed. I’m using a waist level viewfinder and am actually very close. They might notice me with the camera and ask about it. I try to say something simple along the lines of ‘oh this is just a new camera, I’m trying to figure out how it works’ or something along those lines. Again I’m not trying to deceive here, I just know that if I really try and get into a discussion on a larger idea, people will make assumptions on that idea. Kind of like when you tell someone an idea for a photo project and they shoot it down, well it’s just an idea and the picture is going to be very different. I’d much rather have a discussion over the finished picture than a concept. I have ‘found’ some of the people in the pictures and they’ve all either cared very little, or thought it was really funny. The older couple with the motorized cart, I later found out, is a good friend of mines’ Grandparents. I sent them and her each a print and they were going to blow it up and put it on their front lawn!

JC: I have to bring this up, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised. Philip-Lorca diCorcia got sued by one of the subjects in his photos; and even though in the end the judge sided with diCorcia, I think the issue is not quite as solved as many of us would like to think - with different state laws etc. So here’s the question, and pardon me for acting out devil’s advocate here. If models get thousands of dollars to be photographed why shouldn’t people get compensated, whose candid photo ends up in a fine-art gallery with steep price tags on it?

BU: Very big question. One of the things that people do not consider is that it simply is not ever a lucrative career choice to be an artist. You’re lucky if you can find some way to support your work, whether that be selling work, teaching, editorial jobs, etc… So I fear that when people see numbers attached to art little is considered into what actually it costs to produce this thing for sale. Ironically much like dish soap, or any other product, people only look at price tags. Photographers have been documenting culture and creating records of people, times, history for centuries. If everyone was to be compensated for being included in a photograph, the collective estates of Winogrand, Cartier Bresson, Frank, etc… would all be bankrupt! Also at what point does one compensate? If one takes the picture and edits it out but has the negative should someone be compensated for that as well? It’s simply so problematic because no one ever expects a certain picture to be a huge sale-able thing as fine art. For every picture there are hundreds, thousands of others that never make it into a book or gallery. For a commercial or editorial job, things are different, there is a value attached to an image even before it’s produced.

I also feel artists are held in higher scrutiny than other cultural figures. In the case of the DiCorcia lawsuit, this also became apparent with the endless discussions of artists’ exploiting, profiteering, etc… There seems to be a bigger misunderstanding of art and its place and purpose in society in general. Something more so in the U.S. than other countries but everywhere. On any visit to a museum one can overhear the comments of ‘I could do that’, ‘what makes this so special’, ‘who cares about a urinal on a pedestal?’ And that is exactly, in some cases, the point. But some of modern art has created a distrust by the general populace because Duchamp (whom I love) and others showed us that art is in ideas not in objects. This is very liberating, but if art is no longer ‘special’, if we remove craft from art, then it needs academia to explain it. Without reading some didactic panel, the work is then just a urinal, no magic, easy to dismiss. This distrust of contemporary and modern art filters its way into discussions such as the DiCorcia suit. It seems the artist is expected to act in higher regard and with more consequences than political figures or corporations, people that actually do affect your lives!


JC: I am infinitely fascinated by thrift stores, and I don’t even know why. I often think that while many thrift stores do make money for worthwhile causes, they are really only a somewhat perverted form of consumption, with maybe an added layer of allowing you a glimpse into other people’s lives. What do you think? Are thrift stores different? And if you shoot at thrift stores is your approach different?

BU: The thrift stores are very different. Part of what I’m trying to do with the thrift store pictures is an obvious continuum of the Copia project. Though this is where all the goods, once so sparkly and desirable end up, kind of what gets thrown over the castle walls. To me I see a class issue. The stores exist because there is a huge social class in this country that needs items cheap. What the intentions are of the store owners is always going to somewhat be based on commodity. The stuff here is used, it’s been touched and that makes the biggest difference. It’s kind of a temporary resting dump for culture artifacts. Last year’s trends, aging posters, CD’s, Windows 98… things that have so quickly ended their 1st consumer life cycle now begin a secondary life cycle. My approach is a lot different (and still in progress), I’ve almost exclusively been using the 4x5 camera and there are many more pictures of the spaces, the items, and without people. It’s a bizarre challenge to think of the endless piles of goods as still lifes, in the same way Walker Evans photographed depression era farmers and their homes. I also think of a quote from Andy Warhol, that if one was to simply lock up a department store as is, that in 20 years (perhaps less now), you could open it as a museum.


JC: Let me bring up something that I have been thinking about for a while, partly because of what I like to take photos of. For me, your projects are very clearly fine art, but they also have, maybe just a tad less clearly, a documentary or editorial character. I find it interesting how over the past few years many photographers, without planning or coordinating this, have started to develop these kinds of fine-art documentary studies - or however one might want to call them. What do you think about this? How do you view your projects? Are they more fine art to you or more documentary? Or maybe you don’t even think about it all that much?

BU: I think about this often and teach classes on documentary photography. My thesis paper in graduate school was on the photographer Paul Graham and his approach to documentary. What I found interesting about Graham is he is one that ignores what Evans called a ‘documentary style’, a formal way of making pictures, and instead worked with documentary ideas, photographing social change, political/economic troubles, his point of view. Originally with the Copia pictures I was most concerned with making pictures that may help people question their own role in consumption, and an early strategy for that was to simply put the pictures under car windows in parking lots. I quickly came to understand that that would simply be garbage and most wouldn’t take it so seriously. But, if the pictures are in a museum or gallery and they are ‘art’, I could use that authority to have the pictures be examined more seriously. It’s a hard thing to take a picture of something we look at and do every day and do it in a way that will ask to be scrutinized. So for me this is where the fine art and document come together, that I am creating something based on a social and political idea and making it into ‘art’. I also think that a whole generation of young artists/photographers have had the work of earlier documentary photographers presented to them as art. Evans, Frank, Arbus, Riis, Hine , etc… all exist in museums and as art commodity, regardless of the original intent (which with each is very much different). Thinking of Hine’s pictures, which were originally done as propaganda for the National Child Labor Committee, and appreciating them as art is a very different way of thinking about them. This affects the way new work is created and most recently, I feel, the large amount of projects based on documentary and realism in photography is more a symptom of artists reacting to cultural conditions.

JC: Judging from the reactions when you showed people your Copia pictures do you feel you were able to achieve what you were after?

BU: Yes. This is where the work does seem to pay off. I often hear that since looking at my pictures, people can’t experience shopping the same, or ‘everywhere I see your pictures’. That’s exactly what I’m hoping to invoke! And it’s amazingly surreal when it really works, that one can put together pictures with a point of view and translate that. It’s something I feel strongly about, making work that people can understand no matter what your background is, we’re all in the checkout, we’re all under those fluorescent lights at some point, standing in front of what seems to be hundreds of thousands of choices and then realizing that it makes no difference whatsoever. This is why the pictures must be empathetic, so we can see ourselves in the photographs.

This also goes back to the earlier question about DiCorcia, and though I love many different kinds of art, in my work I’m interested in appealing to a democratic audience. With this in mind, Copia has evolved into a much larger project - the first chapter, the big-box middle class retail experience, the second thrift stores and resale shops, the third chapter, backrooms of retail stores. It really could go on forever, or at least until I get tired of it all.

JC: When I met you last year in New York, you told me this story of what got you interested in photography. It’s such an interesting story. Would you mind sharing it?

BU: Oh yeah. As an undergrad in college I was very much uninterested in school. I was playing in a band and putting most of my time and energy into that. I had made a choice to major in graphic design but I was horrible at it, I wouldn’t finish anything or even show up for the final, a terrible student! I had taken a semester off from school and did realize I needed to finish. I tried to sign up for as many classes as I could to ‘get it over with’. One of these was a photography class. Unfortunately I still had this crappy attitude. Early on that semester I was riding my bicycle home from class and had a bad fall on a very big hill. I believe I went over the bars and hit my head real good. One minute I was riding home from class, the next I was having this crazy dream where everything was black and white, and still images. I was walking around trying to figure out what was happening to me, but also content that it was simply a dream and that anything strange here would result in clarity on waking in bed. Clarity did come but in an ambulance. I had been walking about and knocking on doors and talking to strangers for some time under the guise of a concussion, seeing in black and white stills. After a long emergency room wait and a weak patch up I was sent home. I became fascinated with this idea of stills though and in the photography class began trying to recreate this experience in pictures. I fell in love with photography and couldn’t get enough of it.