Kenosha, WI 2003 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Beginning shortly after the events of September 11th 2001, Brian Ulrich started what ended up being a nearly decade-long photographic exploration of the after effects of the attacks on American society. This work at its outset took aim at the remarkable and spontaneous interstices that opened up in people's social relations with each other following the attacks, and sought to try to illustrate and analyse the new relations that were emerging between people from all corners of the country and all walks of life. As Rebecca Solnit writes so eloquently of her discoveries researching the aftermaths of disasters:

"the truth is that most people are altruistic, resourceful, and constructive during crisis. A disaster is actually threatening to elites, not because the response is selfish but because it often unfolds like a revolution, in which the status quo has evaporated. Civil society improvises its own systems of survival—community kitchens, clinics, neighborhood councils, and networks of volunteers and survivors—often decentralized and deeply empowering for the individuals involved. What gets called recovery can constitute the counter-revolution—the taking back of power."

In her outstanding essay entitled "How 9/11 Should Be Remembered", Solnit strikes directly at the beauty and seeming improbability of this momentary pause in which Brian began to photograph, and her sensitivity to the hopefulness of social relations, to the optimism of collective purpose that arose from the ashes of the attacks gives appropriate measure to the phenomenal sense of disappointment, disillusionment and disenfranchisement that greeted the Bush administration's subsequent imprecation to spend, spend, spend.

"A spontaneously assembled flotilla of boats, ranging from a yacht appropriated by policemen to a historic fireboat, evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from lower Manhattan, a nautical feat on the scale of the British evacuation of an army from Dunkirk in the early days of World War II; the fleet, that is, rescued in a few hours as many people as the British fleet rescued in days (under German fire admittedly, but then New York’s ferry operators and pleasure-boat captains were steering into that toxic cloud on a day when many thought more violence was to come)"

The short distance that separated the government's insistence on everybody getting back to business and Hurricane Katrina in a way has an air of inevitability. But that line also extends to the present Occupy movement spreading not only across the US but in fact the globe. It is in this context that Brian's "Copia" work - which is made up of three interlinked bodies of photographs: Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores - finds its subject matter. Copia, and the debut Aperture monograph "Is This Place Great Or What" are the result of his study of how the starter pistol fired by Bush while the ashes at Ground Zero still smoked has set off a chain reaction across American society, and how that reaction finds its expression in and around one of our most common habits: shopping.


Schaumburg, IL 2002 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: I understand that your work in Retail first of all, and then on through to the whole Copia trilogy, was born out of a response to 9/11 and the ensuing response by ordinary Americans and their government. I'm interested in this process of accelerated consumerist activity following hot on the heels of a violent national tragedy and two large wars, and how it has its echoes in the origins of the strip mall in the 1950s after the Second World War, but can you speak to how you came to begin making the Copia work we see in your monograph "Is This Place Great Or What" and how it fits into these issues?

Brian Ulrich: Certainly. This idea began in the 1920s of the manufacture of desire as a strategy, that worked so profoundly well that it continues to be used to this day. So post WWII suburban expansion was completely indicative of that idea: what can we do to create this larger perspective of desire, desire replacing necessity? If you replaced necessity or need or function with desire you can do anything to control people. There was an effort made after 9/11 to turn consumer activity into patriotic activity, so that consumption was equivalent to patriotism, and the thought process of political action becomes identical with retail and consumer choice.

I was quite incredulous to hear that this rhetoric even existed. What was profound was that this was a tragedy that existed among the entire community. We actually had a moment where we all could understand each other because we had just experienced the same tragedy. This cultural umbrella opened up, and we existed in the same space. I initially tried to make photographs of that social breakdown, of how class, wealth or even a kind of obvious emotional distinction between one another broke down and people could reach out to each other. I thought that was a beautiful thing and I tried to photograph that. But then this mass-messaging came out that this was how we were going to respond - by retail - and I wanted to see how we would react to that, whether it would change people's behaviour as well as their relationship to the things that they wanted - in other words, was this now their patriotic duty to own the thing rather than just wanting the thing? I never set out to make some epic project, it was just simply to see if that was happening (it was a curiosity). But what did start to happen pretty quickly was that I was looking at something so fundamentally huge it was difficult even to process, and trying to paint the dawn of the 21st century in that fluorescent lamp glow became pretty monumental.


Black River Falls, WI 2006 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: It's a little forgotten, but just as pre-World War II the US and global economy was still suffering heavily, in 2000 we were in the midst of the wreckage of the dot-com bubble in similarly bleak economic circumstances. So we find ourselves in this environment of low interest rates, cheap consumer credit inundating people in every walk of life, a constant exhortation to purchase things...

BU: There was such a shift from Clinton-era new millennium to the Bush era. There is something to be said... I mean, sometimes it seems awfully convenient that certain things happen at certain times. There was this big shift, but then 9/11 happened when people were just starting to get frugal. This was the idea that it was all suddenly available, and it didn't really matter what so long as you participated: you're a good citizen if you're a good consumer. Of course that really did exacerbate everything that would come to fruition in 2004/5 boom in economic activity. I mostly saw that in the art market. I remember going to the Art Basel fair in 2006 and somehow we got passes to the VIP room with wall-to-wall carpet and servants, and maybe that exists today but it seemed indicative of the time. There was this gentleman who was so perplexing to me because he was so out of shape, and his shirt was too tight and he almost seemed to be endlessly sweating, and it was so clear to me that this was the guy who shouldn't be in the room and who was gambling everything to be in that room. That idea of being allowed into that exclusive club is so powerful that it becomes faith and a religion.

Stanley: Right, and there were a profusion of factors feeding into all of this...

BU: There's this view that there's a large middle class that all has the same function and way of thinking. It seems to me we erased this term working class and replaced it with middle class. With middle class came this sense of better economic times and entitlement. And of course the original middle class was very community-driven and needed community to survive. There's so much photography about the middle class, but to me that seemed like the place to start. The entire American landscape in many regards has been turned into one huge strip mall. I do succinctly remember this moment where going to a single place to find something that was unique existed. In 2002 it become clear to me that that was no longer the case, that that homogenization had been so total. That was one of the reasons why I titled the pictures with place, not merely to see how these places were different - but to drive home the point (that they were not). I was also pissed off, I was angry that people would entertain this folly. It would have been easy to make pissed off pictures, a kind of slapstick, but I wanted to get to something deeper than "look how stupid the shoppers are". Also from the methodology of standing in one place and looking for a long time, you do start to observe these deeper moments. I was thinking of this historical perspective, and what was so powerful to me about work that was done in post-Impressionism by Manet or Caillebotte, was that they weren't just painting the lady sitting on the bench they were painting this psychological shift in society from internalisation to externalisation through the modernisation of cities and how that was affecting psyches... I also wondered can I also have the picture be about the deeper psychological aspect. It was about shifting the focus of American street photography into the shopping mall, and that was also strategic.


Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. Art Institute of Chicago


Medford, NY 2003 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: That reminds me of Stephen Shore's coda to Sze Tsung Leong's History Images book, where he says that “a camera can only deal with the visible. A photographer trying to communicate his or her perception of the currents below the surface of things has to find instances where these currents are visibly manifest”... Your work suggests you had a fairly holistic appreciation of your subject matter, even though it's subdivided - it has an integrity that feels holistic...

BU: I had been thinking about it for some time, and because I was thinking about it for some time I kind of had a pretty solid opinion for it and I still entertained with the editors the idea of really trying to see if this could be one cohesive mass of information or pictures, or less linear. But to me what was important was the fact that it's not so much about the fact that there exists this narrative - which in many ways could be read very simplistically... To me what's most important about that narrative is that it simply unfolded as the work moved on, so that these things kind of happened out in the world, and paying attention to them and investing in them in a way that hopefully gets at the complexity of them paid off, in the way that Retail moves into Thrift, and Thrift moves into the Dark Stores and so on. I felt like if I were to break up that linearisation, to a certain extent that I would ultimately subvert my own project and move it into this discussion and language of just simply photography.


Pep Boys 3, 2009 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: It was interesting to me that the work unlocks and kind of plays with these interlocking ecosystems, but not in a closed way as if you were to say 'well this particular things starts at point A, goes to point B, goes to point C, goes to point D, and then goes back to point A and that's the end of it.' There's a lot of stuff outside of what's been photographed that's also very relevant. I don't know how anyone would photograph money, for instance... But when the projects were overlapping how did you see these ecosystems as one informing the other, and how did you get to a point of natural closure with Dark Stores?

BU: To go back even to Retail, I never necessarily even initially thought of the project as chapters or anything. I was kind of moving along and this question kept popping up, not just from myself but others, which was "well what happens to everything that people are consuming?" - "where does it go?" And of course a kind of initial or maybe more obvious idea of that would be trash and dumps and refuse

Stanley: Yeah, because you'd already photographed that...

BU: Yeah, but I really thought 'well what about the thrift stores?' - 'what becomes of that?' The Thrift stores became sort of that interesting overlap between Retail and Dark Stores. In some cases it became sort of disturbingly overwhelming, so that some of the things that I was photographing in thrift stores I had photographed on the shelves brand new six to eight months earlier, and I saw the half-life of these products becoming constantly shorter and shorter. Then after working on Thrift for so long I kept coming up with this idea that we've refined the idea of manufacturing things (and this is everything, you know art, images, information, consumer products) so well that we've lost the ability to actually consider them. That was something I thought so much about with Thrift, that there exist all these things that we've made them so valueless by just making them so well. I actually thought about the Dark Stores idea much much earlier (around 2003/4) - I thought that this economic model that we've created for ourselves, which is one based on perpetual growth and perpetual leisure, was in no way sustainable. I literally even in the beginning with the term Copia, kept thinking of the Romans and how that society had extinguished itself as well. I remember writing notes that talked about how the last chapter of the whole thing would be pictures of the same stores but empty.

Stanley: Right - kind of like La Jetée...

BU: And so I tried to make some of those pictures in 2005, but Thrift really became more important at that time - especially in light of the events around Hurricane Katrina... But the Dark Stores, around 2008 this idea became really prevalent again, and all of a sudden once again made perfect sense. There it was unfolding before me. And again I had this notion that perhaps I wasn't crazy, that this economic model was simply destined to spit out anything it could in order to grow - whether that meant entire communities or states or certainly people's lives.

Untitled, 2007 (0710) © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.

Stanley: I'm interested to know how you felt that you'd reached a natural conclusion, and also now that you're putting the work out more permanently into the world with the book, how you feel the work has been changed by what's happened/is happening - I'm implicitly referring also here to Occupy Wall Street and all the other things that are spread out around the place that feed into the context of the work in ways you couldn't have thought it would do when you made it...

BU: The difficult thing with any of these projects is that they could conceivably exist in perpetuity. I could continue to photograph the way I have in the stores, whether it was WalMarts or thrift stores or dead malls, in perpetuity. And there are so many of them, there is such a huge amount of work to do whether it's photographing or researching. Towards the end of it and more recently there's been a certain degree of collecting or gleaning the things - the remnants of 20th century retail culture that I've found or were left behind in the dark stores. There's a few of those things that exist in the book, but there certainly could have been a lot more. You really don't know - it's a weird way to work actually, which is to work until something tells you to point in a different direction. On the one hand I hope nothing does, or maybe I could just go back to playing in a band or something... But of course the work continues to grow and evolve.

The idea of putting it in a book was really something that was important to me, and I had been thinking about it really from the get-go, and had made one small handmade of Retail. There's two variations of Thrift book and one Copia, but when I started making the Dark Stores pictures it became really clear that there had to be one book of all three. Putting all that work and information together is just endlessly daunting, not only as there's of ten years of work but that there's so much to talk about that it could have been an encyclopaedia - not just in terms of photographs but additional material that could exist in there.


Flushing, NY 2004 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: I wonder also to what extent you think the book responds to the developing norm - not to suggests that it's wholly new, but that it's become more normative - of subverting the conventional expectation of a photographic narrative within a book by obtruding other things into it that aren't necessarily photographic - of including non-photographic materials - and sort of fragmenting that sense of something that's authoritative and objective that has existed often in photobooks...

BU: That material exists in the beginning of the book and at the end. At times we were trying to integrate it with the photographs, and it really became kind of awkward. In another regard, I've been collecting these things and objects for some time, but to actually try to think of them and process them into something that exists visually and outside the book is something I'm still trying to wrap my head around. So we decided on using the material towards the end of the book in and around the essays - to have these extra layers of mostly historical information. To me when I started doing those things, and still I have this kind of weird arguments with certain people, but I still think of them as photographs... When it really began in earnest was several years ago when I was trying to photograph this sign, and I was really frustrated because you can only photograph a sign in so many ways... and there it is, it's this thing. There's this battle between thing-in-the-picture and and what the picture describes. So the Homeland Security image, the picture wins, but in some cases the object wins. So I got really frustrated and decided just to take the sign and move it, and move the context of it, to move it from Place A where it retains its kind of boring and mundane context outside a dead mall or something, and move it into a gallery or a museum. And that's something I've been thinking about all along, in terms of like taking this middle class experience and just moving it into a museum or a gallery, or taking the existence of the thrift store and the experience of that plight, and trying to put it in this new context. To me this idea of some kind of letter from a woman who had her purse stolen from outside of a mall in 1966 is, in the book, just like a photograph. And people again, as you say, have been doing that for quite some time... I'm teaching this class that's trying to talk about this wonderfully weird relationship between photography, object, ephemera, and how those things influence or de-influence each other - when one wins, when one doesn't win, and how that factors into things like eBay where there's still some degree of faith that the photographs are going to describe the thing as real or authentic, and the better the pictures the more authentic the thing. I like that - I like that kind of complex ridiculous problem.

I remember when I got the Guggenheim Fellowship there was a big party at the Guggenheim Foundation, and they had this large glass desk and in it were all these letters and all the correspondence from Walker Evans to the Guggenheim Foundation, and of course everybody wants to see that and it's extremely interesting and informative and powerful. Why shouldn't those things be in American Photographs as well?

I'm planning on making a show with my gallery, and I can't just put this stuff in a room. Even though there's been so much done in art in terms of changing the context of things, there's still this desire for a pair of hands to have entered into the equation and affected *the thing* in some way. To reinvent it as aesthetic. I don't think photographers have really been interested in that, strangely enough.


Richland Mall, 2009 after Stephen Shore, 1973 © Brian Ulrich, Is This Place Great Or What. Courtesy of artist.


Stanley: I suppose to a certain extent the question becomes less pressing with a book and much more pressing with a show, because you don't' have to answer to how people are going to relate to a piece of ephemera that you've included in a book of photographs because it will be an image. However well you've produced the actual print on the paper, it's not going to be textural. I was watching a video of Gerhard Richter talking about this big show he has on at the Tate Modern in London - which is huge, they've brought masses of his paintings - and I was thinking, you know, 'I know I'm never going to own one of his paintings - that's a given'... So I have a postcard collection that I started in 2004 and I have like 1,000 postcards now, and it's just that absence when you look at a Gerhard Richter postcard the graphical power of the image is conveyed really quite well, but there's just no sense of the depth, the dimensions, the texture, and the way it feels to be stood 6ft, 2ft, or 10ft from the object. I think when you have these things in books, I very much believe they can add substantively to the experience of the book and they can make pictures more complex and more rich long after you've looked at them, but what you don't have contend with then is the visceral experience of the object in a gallery space where all of a sudden you need to know something about the dynamics of space for a three dimensional object and how people are going to walk around the gallery, and how you use the walls, and what your lighting strategy will be, and do you want to keep people from touching it or do they touch it?... Those kind of questions for photographers, when I try to think of a photographer who's had to contend with that the only name that came to mind when you were talking about it was Roni Horn - and people would argue that she's not a photographer...

BU: You know Evans was interested in all of this - he was a massive collector, and of course William Christenberry later picked up on it, but Evans famously towards the end of his life went back to many of the locations he had photographed and collected objects and signs and put them in his home and did exhibit them at one point, but no one ever really got it. Even reading about it and looking at photographs of it I never really understood it until I also had this weird moment of just understanding that there is this difference between the representation and the object, and that one can potentially be in conversation with the other. What's funny about Evans's signs is that they become famous through his pictures and so then he goes to get them, and that again moves into this kind of eBay language too, which is almost like looking at the history of photography as a sequence of publicity images of items... It's a very John Berger way of looking at it, but it kind of makes some interesting sense.

Stanley: It makes sense to me...If I could only ever use one source of quotations for writing about pictures I could start and stop with him.

BU: Yeah. I was teaching the invention of glamour today to the students, and it just always kind of blows their minds and causes all kinds of interesting arguments, which is good. It's just so rich... We mostly teach Berger for Ways of Seeing, but that's - not to discount the other things - but it's almost plenty, and what I mean by that is there's such a necessity for a real good critical insight into visual literacy in this country, because that ultimately is quite the problem. We're so visually illiterate that these things can be used against us very very easily. Earlier you mentioned Occupy Wall Street, and that's part of a campaign started by a magazine from Canada called Adbusters, and early on they were pretty influential to me. I remember they had some pictures in there seemingly candid pictures of people shopping, and there was one that was just not that good, and I remember thinking 'well, what if I try to make photographs for the ideas they're talking about?' So, again, from the beginning it seemed really powerful to try to use this photographic language which had been used to invent that idea of desire, but almost could potentially destroy it - using that same language of the advert, and trying to turn it against itself.




Interview by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa