An Interview with Brian Ulrich

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2009 2:40PM

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Earlier this month, Ravenswood photographer Brian Ulrich received a special letter in his mailbox: No, not a rhyme-y poem from his mom (that's what we receive in our mailbox), but a note stating that he had won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography -- the same prize bestowed upon such shutter-snapping legends as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and -- it's worth noting -- a slew of Chicagoans. Ulrich, who is an adjunct professor at Columbia College and part-time prof at the Art Institute, will use the fellowship to continue his Copia project, which examines Americans' relationship to consumption and, when completed, will comprise a decade of work. Recently we chatted with Ulrich about photography, economics and big-box aesthetics.

Chicagoist: So, how was it to find out that you had won such a prestigious prize?

Brian Ulrich: It was pretty amazing. I've been working on Copia for so long, and it was difficult to compress it into 20 pictures -- a summation of six years of work -- for the application. I applied, then I worked really hard most of last year, and had basically forgotten about the Guggenheim after applying. I didn't want to think about it at all. I don't usually do so great with grants -- winning them, I mean. I've gotten a few, but usually it's "oh, I should have gotten that."

So when I went to check the mail, and saw the letter -- well, it was thicker than a "no." I've gotten enough rejections to know that when there's more than one piece of paper, it's like, "holy shit." I looked at it for a few hours, then I went back to work.

C: What does the letter say?

BU: It's very vague -- it doesn't even say "you won," but that they're going to put your name forward to the next level. I had to call a friend who had gotten one to ask, "does this make any sense?" Then he started flipping out. I thought that was a good thing.

C: What does the grant entail?

BU: The Guggenheim has been around for a long time, and it's quite an amazing grant. One of the most well-known grant recipients was Robert Frank, whose Guggenheim enabled him to do most of The Americans in 1959. The grant gives you the option to work on a specific facet of your work. You have to put together a proposal, say, "I'm planning to do this," then they give you a certain amount of money to continue. A friend of mine explained that the Guggenheim grant is pretty wonderful because they "get it" -- they pick people who are quite prolific.

It's a lot of pressure, though.

C: So, are you freaking out?

BU: It's freaking me out a little bit. But I'm really looking forward to getting to the work. The last time I was able to do a considerable amount of traveling for my project, I went to Michigan, through Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin ... it was really great to get a bit of a taste of that, and I'm looking forward to taking that a lot farther. A lot of things right now are happening that I feel like -- well, I cringe some days because there's so much happening that I want to get to, but can't because I'm teaching, or tied down.

C: What are some of these things you want to get to, exactly?

BU: I'm working on the chapter of my bigger project called Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls -- not just the changing retail landscape, but also the change in our economy and an economic model that has been in place since the mid-20th century. It's an economy based on disposable goods, and a society that has a continual influx of leisure time and cash to spend on new stuff. But things are changing and happening so fast, it's insane. Literally, timing the photography of a lot of these sites and locations is key -- the places get bulldozed.

I'm interested in some of the terminology used by retail history websites, like "label scar" -- which is what it's called when you remove a logo, and there's a logo pattern left on the building. It's a wonderful signifier of what used to exist but doesn't anymore -- the building as tombstone. The person who owns the site will paint over the label scar, and you have to get to it before they do. I've been able to get a lot, but doing so much research for this chapter of the project, which is mapped by city -- it takes a bit of time. I might take one trip and just do scouting, then take another trip to do the actual photographs, after I've had time to think about what I want to do there. If I'm not fast enough, the places get bulldozed, or change, or the weather's not agreeable.

C: How is the Copia project structured?

BU: In little chapters. There's the retail, middle-class, big-box shopping stuff, then the stuff about thrift stores -- which is about trying to make sense of the rampant and increased production of goods, and even faster disposable culture. Then the most recent chapter, which is more architectural: closed stores, empty malls, etc. I've been doing that for a year, and plan to do quite a bit more of it. I'm working on all three chapters at once to compile it all into one book, which will look at the first 10 years of the first decade of the first 21st century through this veneer of our consumption -- the rise and fall. I'd like to have other collaborators and specialists write about culture and talk about the economy: activists and other different voices thinking about these ideas. That's how I hope to see it realized, anyway.

C: With something static and homogeneous like big-box retail signs, how do you know when you've gotten the photograph you want, versus "just a shot"?

BU: You never really know. I use film and an 8x10 view camera, pretty much; the film is really expensive -- just to get it processed is $13-20. To take a picture and see it costs that much, so I have to think about what I want to do. There's a lot of time between taking the picture and seeing it. I like to break down the process: When I'm photographing it's intuitive, then I get the film back and get analytical -- "does this pic work, or not?" I'll go back to a location if a picture doesn't work, even if it's in the middle of a field in Ohio. Which is totally indulgent, I know.

C: How do you regard your work in the context of the Internet, which is where most people are likely to see them?

BU: In my work, I think about what the Internet has done for photography that's really wonderful: it has amplified photographs' ability to be propaganda. I like to think about Copia as propaganda: I'm really trying to promote an ideology and a certain level of thinking and responsibility about consumerism to as many people as possible.

As a result of so much photography being done, I keep thinking it presents the opportunity for good photography and projects to exist. It can't just be all about the lucky shot anymore. Photography requires a real patience -- more than what other people would be able to invest. I'm not disappointed to have to drive to Ohio to take a picture again because I want it to be right; most people wouldn't do that.

C: A lot of your photographs are candid shots of people. How do you pull those off in a place like a big-box store?

BU: It came out of a lot of practice, and a lot of bad pictures. I don't just try to get a picture of somebody shopping -- with the pictures of people, I want them to act as portraits where the viewer really feels like they're in an uncomfortable space ... where they feel like they could know the person in the photo and empathize with them. That, of course, hopefully leads people to introspection: "It's me there, with the cell phone, in front of the cheese at Jewel."

I'm patient -- I'll actually walk through the stores, find a good backdrop, and wait with the camera for someone to walk to it. That works tons better than just trying to find someone and follow them -- which is creepy. Then again, it's all creepy. I'm at peace with that. I know that it looks creepy to other people, but I know that's not what I'm trying to do at all.

C: How do you get the light down so well?

BU: It's all done with available light, pretty much. Some stores are not bright enough, or whatever brand of fluorescence doesn't work well at all, but others are great. I'll look for the right lighting in a store, and only hang out there, and someone will eventually step into the right light.

C: Do stores ever ask you to leave?

BU: Rarely. Most people say, "the policy is to not allow photographs." I'll say, "OK, no problem." I'm not going to have a conversation about "I'm going to make pictures."

The public has, in general, a really simplistic view of photography. Most people think of it as a representation of reality in its truest form -- even with Photoshop around. People look at a picture of a famous person on the cover of Vogue or whatever and feel bad about being not skinny. We have been taught as a culture that that is how photography works. At the same time, there's a crazy suspicion and distrust -- among security, police, parents -- of what the intentions of the other person on the other side of the lens will be. The one thing that ticks me off is when they hand you Sept. 11 stuff. If you're a terrorist, then wouldn't it be easier to use Google Earth than set up a camera with a tripod to take a 15-minute exposure? Seems like a really dumb way to scout out a place. But whatever. There's still plenty of places to go, especially with my project.

C: Your work focuses on waste, but in its retail habitat. What about waste itself -- trash, dumps, landfills?

BU: In the beginning, I photographed that stuff. But the problem with a trash dump or trash bag is that it's so out of sight, out of mind. We've kind of appeased our guilt of the thing as soon as we throw it in the can, or dump it in the pile with everyone else's trash. But if it still has a connection to us -- like in the thrift stores, or some old pair of jeans -- they still have some sort of personality that relates back to us and our nostalgia.The trick is to make pictures that don't exist necessarily just in the periphery of ourselves, but kind of implicate and become personalized by their recognizability to our own experience.

C: What's your personal reaction to the closure of so many big-box stores?

BU: It's like dancing on the grave of some of these places -- I want to stomp them into the ground. They were such a bad idea from the start -- so irresponsible, the worst gimmick. We present them with this demeanor of sophistication. Just taking a picture of them allows you to be analytical and strip away the whole illusion to say, "that place is really ugly." It's a fun way to use photography -- to pull the lid off the illusion, even if photography itself is an illusion.

Granger, IN, 2003: Photo by Brian Ulrich.