Photographs Not Taken is a collection of photographers' essays focused on failed attempts to make a picture. Conceived and edited by Will Steacy, each photographer was asked to abandon the camera and, instead, use words to recreate the image that never made it through their lens.
Edited by Will Steacy
Published by Daylight, 2012
Ahorn is very pleased to present Brian Ulrich's essay included in the book as a sneak preview of the publication.
ESSAY by Brian Ulrich
The list of photographs that I am missing while I sit on airport runways, teach classes, or spend hours in the studio makes my head spin. It’s almost as if I can actually sense all the great pictures that I’m missing at a given moment. It’s times like those that remind me to be very productive when I do get behind-the-camera time.
One notable miss was while photographing thrift stores last year. On a trip to Columbus, Mississippi, I had one morning to find and photograph a large thrift store that functioned to fund an orphanage. Whenever I show up at a new store to photograph, I usually spend some time taking pictures of the piles, the still lifes, and the environment before I settle down to make a few portraits. This allows people to not only get somewhat used to the large old camera, but also I can spend some time watching people and begin to think about the eternal portrait question: what do I want the person in the picture to do?
As my hours dwindled, a young boy of about nine who worked at the store repeatedly came by to ask, “Can I help you?” Each time I would explain that I was visiting the store to make some pictures and that I had already spoken with the management. The boy, whose face was half covered in some bubbly orange sugary confection remnant, seemingly could not remember five minutes ago and, with each passing, had to stop and ask, “Can I help you?” “Pickedchures?” “A camera?” Maybe he was simply entranced by the image on the ground glass, but each time I showed him the reflected image and explained how a camera works (“My eye is like a camera…?”), while warning him to not touch the lens (“You wouldn’t want to touch your eye would you?”).
There was something about this kid, his innocence and him working long days in the thrift store with an unlimited supply of Nerdz, Pop Rocks, and Cheetos, that I was transfixed by. Do I take his portrait with Cheetos drizzle all over his face? Should he be carrying donations into the vast pile of trash bags filled with clothes? As my ride out of town sat in the parking lot ready to move on, he made a last pass, “Can I….?” I felt so much emotion for this kid, I could do nothing, I felt insignificant, and most of all, I could not figure a way the photograph would not belittle him.
I am haunted by this experience and toss and turn over the portrait that could’ve been. I’ve even scheduled time to take a trip back down to Mississippi to see if he’s still there, but I never do, as I’m sure that I would simply be standing in the same place and come to the same conclusion.
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, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. He is a 2009 recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. In the fall of 2011, the Aperture Foundation and the Cleveland Museum of Art collaborated to publish his first major monograph, Is This Place Great or What, which was accompanied by a traveling exhibition.