Chicago-based Brian Ulrich‘s photographs portraying contemporary consumer culture reside in major museum collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. He earned his MFA in photography at Columbia College Chicago and a BFA in photography at the University of Akron. It is this understanding of history that informs much of his work which today addresses issues social, political and historical.
I have been kicked out of many a store for photographing. What camera are you using and what is your approach once you are inside?
‘For many of the pictures in the Retail project I used a medium format SLR with a waist level viewfinder. Having a finder that you can look down into instead of holding it to your eye calls a lot attention to yourself as well as allows one to hold the camera still at much slower shutter speeds. Regardless of those things though, the majority of the time it takes a combination of patience and boldness. Strangely I don’t run into people having much of an issue with it. Most often I really don’t think people notice. If an employee does ask me not to take pictures I simply laugh and move on, I’m well aware that what I’m doing looks odd. Better to own up and hit walk across the street to the Kmart’.
‘I had such good luck with the medium format camera that I’ve also used a 4×5 as well. Again in these cases I think most people think I’m supposed to be there. I’ve had employees keep the store open late so I can finish a picture!’
Do you ask permission to photograph individuals or do you just go for it?
‘When I first started making photographs in the big box stores, I observed so many amazing moments. I simply had to figure out a way to make a picture of them that not only captured that psychological consumer moment (the Germans call it Konsumieren Rausch or Consumer Intoxication) but photographs that acted as portraits of specific people whom when looked at in a picture one might know or emphasize with. After some initial attempts to tag along on friends shopping trips and stage things, it became clear I simply had to tough it out a figure a way to get comfortable making the pictures I wanted to make. So I don’t ask or say much at all. I’m thinking about making the picture and not so much about what could go wrong. It seems to work best if I find a good setting and wait for someone to walk into it’.
‘Later with the Thrift store pictures and more recent projects I’m doing a lot more setup, much more formal portraiture. I like the combination of a candid picture and a more formal one. The process of working in both ways greatly informs the other’.
Have you noticed any similarities in the stores you have photographed in regards to marketing techniques (colors, displays, “tastings”) that may result in consumers over-spending?
‘What started as a small idea of seeing if I could find evidence of ‘patriotic shopping’ seven years ago has grown into a large investigation of consumer from the Big Box stores to Thrift stores and recycle shops to employee backrooms and lately art fairs and retail architecture. Most of what happens in these places is cheap gimmicks and illusions. What’s amazing is that most people really don’t see through it. We get so caught up in the hunt that we literally can’t see the forest’.
‘I believe it’s a strategy in some large stores like Ikea to actually so overwhelm the shopper that one feels tired, empty and slightly depressed; to circumvent this emptiness it might seem to make sense to a shopper to fill up on goods’.
‘The American Girl store in Chicago has teams of employees whose sole job is to fill any gap left by a purchased good. So if someone takes something off the shelf an employee radios to the back and another employee runs out with to fill the vacant shelf so it never appears that they are sold out of anything. I spent about 4 hours photographing in that store and I almost had a nervous breakdown’.
‘One of the chaotic places on earth!’
‘The Disney store is always quite clever about putting many goods out of reach from kids or parents. Complete spectacle. The photograph I have of the young girl in the Disney store always makes me think of the writer John Berger (Ways of Seeing)’.
I know you have been photographing retail for years now. Have you found that the attitudes and patterns of consumers have changed with the recent economy?
‘Yes and no. It does seem the only thing that will change Americans habits is circumstance. You can tell people over and over that driving a huge car is harmful and wasteful and they may even agree but most will only drive less if they can’t afford pay for gas’.
‘There may be less people out shopping these days but sadly no one is having the discussion over whether we do in fact need some of these things or what is the economic, and political fallout from building a society that is only as prosperous as it has money to buy things that are disposable and imported’.
‘My most recent project from this year has been exploring these issues moreso in terms of retail space. The stores themselves seem the real indicator that Late Capitalism is failing. The economic model of basing a nations’ well being on the GDP, Dow or profits of the smallest percentage of our country is one I believe terribly misguided. The abuse of that system leaves communities in neglect, unemployment rates rising and skyrocketing trade deficit’.
Is there a common mannerism or trait that you see in people who are in a consumer state of mind?
‘As I mentioned earlier, my good friend, writer and cultural anthropologist Matti Bunzl told me about the Konsumieren Rausch. It makes so much sense to me, and perhaps this is why so few notice or care about the camera, because the inebriated state of shopping is so overwhelming that little else matters. To sound highly cynical I would say the state is very selfish. Though not selfish in exactly a greedy way but an inward and withdrawn state in which the self is paramount’.