Brian Ulrich is part of a new movement in documentary photography that emphasizes reflection over inspection. Projects tend to be of longer duration and seek not just to create narratives but to explicate complex relations. A traveling exhibition of Ulrich’s work is now on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee through May 18, and Lyle Rexer had an opportunity to catch up with him.
Lyle Rexer: Looking over your photographs of the last decade, I can’t help thinking about George Bush’s injunction after September 11 to demonstrate Americans’ resiliency by going shopping. Was that a provocation?
Brian Ulrich: That was a beginning for me, but it really mapped a trajectory of consumption, and his statement simply made the ideology transparent: spending for things you don’t need. For decades the effort of companies has been to implant consumer desire, to get us away from an inherited Puritanism to a desire for fake bunnies and plastic dolls. And our own prosperity after World War II encouraged and confirmed that desire. It could have been a silly project for me, shooting in shopping malls, but it grew as I became aware of its importance. The original idea sort of falls away and the subject itself takes over.
LR: I am impressed by that growth, how you followed the connections and ramifications of your original series into the related aspects of consumer capitalism. This was not a drive-by shooting.
BU: Anything that appears obvious has more going on beneath it. So my pictures form a hierarchy of the consumer economy: first, Retail, with its images of shoppers in their setting. That’s followed by Thrift, the sort of basement of retailing, where we can see how objects lose their value or are revalued. Finally in Dark Stores we can read an indictment of big business, which abandons communities without regret. There is also an implicit view of class relations in America, as well, and especially of the prevalence of poverty.
LR: In that regard, I was especially struck by a picture in Thrift of a warning notice with snapshots of shoplifters.
BU: I was moved by the idea, the irony really, that our culture has made these objects so important that of course people who have the least amount of money and can’t even afford a thrift store will have to steal them. Obviously at malls, too. From that follows the whole apparatus of cops and robbers, the elaborate police and security systems, to control who is allowed to have the things everyone is supposed to want.
LR: We read a great deal about the changing landscape of photography and photojournalism — I would call it a chastening of moral ambition on the part of photojournalists. What do you think picture making can accomplish?
BU: A lot and a little. Photography is a form of citizenship. Through images you can talk about things in a succinct and powerful way and have them understood. Someone once said to me after they saw my pictures that they couldn’t go back to a big box store. “It doesn’t have the power over me anymore,” they said. Photography can change minds, and that gives me a profound sense of purpose.