Prosperity Peaks 

A decade of shopping obsession unfolds through the eyes of a local photographer.

click to enlarge VCU Assistant Professor Brian Ulrich's previous book, "Is this Place Great or What?" was named one of the year's top photo books by The New York Times. There will be a new book in conjunction with his current exhibition, "Close Out: Retail Relics and Ephemera." Pictured here is "Pep Boys 3".
  • VCU Assistant Professor Brian Ulrich's previous book, "Is this Place Great or What?" was named one of the year's top photo books by The New York Times. There will be a new book in conjunction with his current exhibition, "Close Out: Retail Relics and Ephemera." Pictured here is "Pep Boys 3".

Even if you don't know what the great prosperity was, chances are you've been a participant. The desire to buy new stuff has been part of America's cultural mindset since the end of World War II. Local photographer Brian Ulrich's new show at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery suggests that the viewer stop to consider the wisdom of that mentality. Occupying multiple floors of the gallery, "Copia: Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores" and "Close Out: Retail Relics and Ephemera" seek to examine facets of America's shopping obsession.

"Copia," which means abundance, represents 10 years of photographs dealing with consumer culture since the attacks on the World Trade Centers.

"I was curious if people were doing patriotic shopping after 9/11," Ulrich says from his studio in Plant Zero, "because I'm really interested in social culture. Consumers felt they needed to shop patriotically to fight terrorism. I thought it was really interesting how intrinsic the consumer model was as a measure of well-being and safety."

The first part of the project, done from 2001-2006, involved surreptitiously taking pictures of people in stores. "I wanted a certain type of photograph," he says, "But you're not allowed to stare at people in public stores. The photos allow you to stare and be critical. I liked that the photos could subvert the experience of being a shopper. I wanted to make portraits candidly. In the beginning, it would have been easy to make the photos comedic but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to make portraits we could connect to. And the camera has the ability to transform mindless things into something cinematic."

After five years of photographing shoppers, Ulrich began to wonder what happens to all that stuff people buy once the novelty wears off. He thought the natural progression was photographing thrift stores, which he traveled the country doing from 2005-2008. "The project was bigger conceptually," he says. "It was tougher to do because it's so impossible to understand. These were not things produced for sale; they were things made, used and discarded. You see a stuffed animal that was loved, but it may not be loved again. It's really startling when you see huge warehouses of discarded things, but thrift stores were such a visual pleasure and such a counterpoint to bland white malls. They made for wonderful surrealist compositions."

click to enlarge "Gurnee, IL"
  • "Gurnee, IL"

By 2008, Ulrich began considering that if the economic model is one of ever-greater profits, then it had to be unsustainable. So he started photographing dark stores, ghost boxes and dead malls — stores closed, abandoned or with a more than 70-percent vacancy level. "That project became about architecture," he says.

Those three series became "Copia," which showed at the Cleveland Museum of Art last year. The process of mounting the show consumed so much of Ulrich's time that taking photographs took a back seat. Unable to leave it alone completely, he began trolling eBay for vintage photographs. Before long he'd discovered a wealth of 4-by-5-inch negatives relating to his theme. "I could find ones that dealt with consumerism," he says, "and over the past two years I've been scouring for the right negatives."

Along the way he also began to acquire consumer ephemera — shopping center parking tickets, Polaroids of shoplifters, neon signs and even an old Muzak player from Marshall Field's, with tapes labeled by the department in which they were to be played. Along with prints made from the vintage negatives, they form "Close Out."

"A big part of why I'm interested in all this is I believe we're capable of more as a culture," Ulrich says. "It's frustrating to think that this equation is something we're locked into. I don't know if my artwork is going to lift people out of that, but I hope to be part of the conversation. Photography is a powerful, complex medium for change." S

"Copia: Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores" and "Close Out: Retail Relics and Ephemera" run through March 10 at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. For information call 828-1522 or go to arts.vcu.edu/andersongallery.

Ulrich will give a gallery talk Jan. 30 at 5 p.m. A free film series on related topics will be held each Wednesday in February at 5:30 p.m.

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