Close Out: a conversation with Brian Ulrich

Close Out: a conversation with Brian Ulrich

In an essay published here on Brian’s debut monograph Is This Place Great or What, I concluded by saying that the work was a portrait of the false promise of choice, both in terms of consumerism and retail politics, and that the images in that work somehow illuminated the false and fatal equation of individualism with progress. The book succeeded, in my estimation, in calling into question the halcyon consumer ideal that underlies the messaging of retail in our aspirational culture, and succeeded also in showing the attendant devastation brought on by the ascension of a culture of ’empty prosperity’. That line of inquiry continues in a differing form with the recent exhibition and publication of Close Out: Retail Relics and Ephemera.

In this newer work, Brian has culled and edited together a collection of archival images made by press photographers at the time beginning with the end of World War II, and stretching on into the period of America’s Great Prosperity. These archival images, paired with other more contemporary Polaroids, maps, business plans, letters and objects found during his multi-year research into the aftermath of big box retail, connect the essential ideas underlying Is This Place Great or What together with their own cultural and political history.

On the surface, the overall Copia project takes as its aim the nature, habits, organisation and dissolution of consumer culture in America. What has become increasingly evident with this new work is the extent to which consumerism is and has always simply been the most opportune pretext by way of which to examine the conditions and the logic of contemporary American society. Following the post-war settlement, the advent of interstate highways, the emergence of state-backed malls and purpose-built suburbs, and the rapid and profound disinvestment in the urban innercity combined to form the basis for a logic of individualism, of individual consumptive aspiration, and of a tribal separateness that both underscored the rationale for Reaganite neoliberal policy, and the boom and bust cycles of the past ten plus years of economic history. The unbroken trajectory of that single logic is illustrated in subtle and at times quite naked ways in this new work, and despite the unavoidable patina of historical curiosity in which these old press negatives are closed, what becomes steadily clear in the substance of the work is how little we are distant, in so many ways, from the history we see depicted here.

What is given to us in these images, from the comforts of our more modern vantage point, is the at least superficially deep shift from a set of 1950s cultural realities to our contemporaneity and ostensibly progressive norms. The selection and sequencing of these images plays up the inherently performative nature of 1950s cultural values, and asks questions of photography’s relationship to the public theatricality of the 1950s model of the moral American man or woman. Our distance from this historical moment can be measured in aesthetic terms, but it is that distance itself that compels us to excavate the image for the underlying ideas and ideals that inform what is at work in the picture, and the culture of which the picture forms a part. The inclusion of these images in the broader frame of Brian’s career-long investigation of retail’s relationship to the idea of America, and of prosperity, encourages in us an effort both to recuperate their historical function, and to recognise their relevance to the present day illusions of sophistication behind which these veiled ideas continue to exert a profound influence.

A conversation with Brian Ulrich

Could you maybe start just by explaining how this new work links up with Is This Place Great or What, and how it emerged and developed into its exhibition form, and that of the forthcoming book?

During much of the research and photographing of the larger body of work that became the Is This Place Great or What book, I began finding, collecting and salvaging objects, photographs, paperwork, signs and signage — really most anything that seemed to epitomize my interest and curiosity in the vast history of commercial retail. In 2009, I wanted to see how these objects would work in tandem with the photographs in an exhibition. My gallery in Chicago enthusiastically encouraged me to exhibit one of my large found neon signs with some of the (at the time) new work from the Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls project. The relationship between the physical thing and the images was quite powerful, and I continued this in a few other exhibitions, but often due to space or practicality it wasn’t easy to really integrate the material alongside the photographs. In other cases the venues were simply not always convinced that some of the ephemera was indeed art, which wasn’t really my concern.

When I moved to Richmond in 2011, I met Ashley Kistler who curates the Anderson Gallery at VCU. She visited my studio and was quite excited about this work, and we began a conversation on planning an exhibition of it. It worked out that the traveling exhibition of the Copia work from the Cleveland Museum of Art was available to show at Anderson as well, and that furthered the relationship between the 10 years of photographs from the first decade of the 21st century and the objects, photographs and ephemera that depicted the period from the 1940s almost up until the time of the Copia work itself. I often half-joked that Copia could have a prequel, and this work becomes that as it defines an economic and ideological trajectory that leads up to where we are now. It’s one thing to say that we are a society entrenched in consumer sentiment so deeply that our whole being, measurements of success and happiness or security, etc are intrinsically connected to consumer culture. It’s another to attempt to describe how that happened in the first place, which I believe was by design and through the manufacture of this ideal.

In addition to the show, Ashley proposed a book or catalog. The book is born out of many conversations, a lot of looking over much of the material, and bringing in two amazing friends and designers: Ken Meier and Yoonjai Choi. The book really did not come together until the show did. It was a rather overwhelming process, at times, to distill all this material into a photobook narrative and/or an exhibition. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense that once we really understood the materials, forms and narratives they created in the physical show that then we were able to weave those into the book. Often it’s the opposite.

It’s funny, because the Is This Place Great or What book itself opens with some of the coupon ephemera that’s in this new show, rendered in graphic form as end papers, and then segues to one of the old 4×5” black and white negatives of a Goldblatt’s store opening from September 1960.  It seems to me that in Copia you were investigating and laying out the way that a powerful idea (mis)functions through its lifecycle, from the new object on the shop floor all the way to the dead mall.

In Close Out you are taking material that was intended to promote (commercially) the acceptance of this idea, and using that same commercial source material against its original intentions. I suppose the common thread between Copia and Close Out is your continual engagement with making work that co-opts the commercial spaces or the imagery of retail in order to disrupt or call into question its authority, and to try to encourage us to look at how it functions.

In that context, could you talk about the specific photographs that you chose to work with in the show and the book, where they came from, how you began to not just accumulate but analyse and order them, and then set them into your narrative framework and against their own intentions?

Back in 2005 – 2007 so many conversations among photographers and photography enthusiasts were (and sometimes still are) based on the large effect of digital photography on the how we use, interpret and understand images. Photography seemed to fall into an existential crisis of sorts, with everyone searching for meaning as we stared at the increasingly vast gamut of images available to us at all times. I began to think about how one thing that inherently would change was the larger cultural relation to the photograph as a physical object. Almost every thrift store and antique shop has (or had) a large number of varied photographic prints that – once removed from their original context – radiated a number of strange mysteries and perplexing ironies. It wasn’t just interesting that those archives would gradually disappear as new photographs emerged in digital form that would only exist on hard-drives or rarely in print. It became clear that once the photograph is in the context of the digital (or internet), that it would be hard for the pictures to retain the mystery or lack of context that a thrift store found print might have.

On one of the dead mall excursions in 2008 I came across a few 4×5” photographs that were made by employees who had worked there long ago. Again, these were far from ambiguous images, but curious in what they depicted in the experience of these people who worked in this sometimes boring place. While some objects were incredibly informative, the photographs found in the dead malls were packed with a visceral sense of that history. As I accumulated more of these found prints, I came across a large archive of film negatives being sold piecemeal on eBay. These seemed to be from the archives of major newspaper from years as far back as the 1940s, with the majority of them from the 1950s and 1960s. I began to search for ones related to retail or consumerism, and bought as many of them as I could. With the first few I realized that they could very well describe how something that originally was meant to celebrate and manufacture our newfound consumer pride, in context of my work would show the failure of these systems. The language of the cameras, often hand-held Speed Graphic 4×5 press cameras with the ever present flashbulb, rendered such a specific and wonderful picture language, both candid and staged, both cinematic and commonplace. It did not matter that different operators made the photographs, the consistency from image to image was a mandate dictated by the culture of journalistic sensationalism.

In addition to the obvious correlations to my own work, I chose photographs for the show that both inflated the belief in this manufactured desire, and revealed its weaknesses – even if unintentionally. There are several photographs that report on crimes and stolen consumer goods. While it makes sense in the context of a news story, in the broader context, as the national consumer culture enforces an inherent connection to buying and owning things, the obvious result would be that that ideal becomes so powerful that people are willing to resort to lawlessness in order to obtain the thing. The environment shapes the behavior.

In the book, we wove a narrative of those pictures, from pre-World War II photographs that depict socialist aspects of American culture in the community co-ops, or the FDR Office of Price Administration rationing store. Those images suggest that the landscape of America was vastly different than the one 5 years later, shown in the opening of the Golblatt’s ‘Store of the Future’ in 1948, where massive crowds flood the streets on the west-side of Chicago in great fanfare to the opening of a box-style department store. While I like the ambiguity of the photographs on their own, I thought it important to include captions that were born from as much information we could find through research on these images. These are pictures that often were the edits, bad frames or rejects from the newspapers – hence them being sold so many years later – so sometimes little information existed. But in line with my earlier thoughts above on context, and how information can at times amplify the meaning of a photograph, it made more sense to include that information right along with the image. The pictures then serve more clearly as document.

I think that there is an inherent and compelling tension between the way these found images stage the construction of an ideal or aspiration, and then with the passing of time serve as documents illustrating the manufacture of that ideal on the one hand, and also as instruments in the evolving narrative of your commentary on this broader cultural phenomenon. For instance in the book I think that Congregational Church Rummage Sale, Winnetka, Illinois, 1960 interacts powerfully with Untitled, 2007 (Thrift), and similarly that Antique Gun Traders, Chicago 1954 does so with Lyndhurst, Ohio 2004 (Retail).

To what extent do you think that you’ve been able to impose your narrative, and thus to insist on certain questions about your overarching theme with this found imagery, and how has working with these images shaped or altered the newer work that you’re producing now?

The obvious way the found images change function is by recontextualizing them in proximity to my work. It’s not a great leap to make those connections. Of course there is a lot more there than simply those connections. In each of the individual projects in Copia: Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, there so many implied narratives packed into those works. One such narrative in Thrift was the idea that as much of our commercial landscape becomes corporate, so do the thrift stores, which in some cases forces the smaller ones out of business. The Congregational Rummage sale is exactly the sentiment that Thrift was born of: a community center exchanging goods for the its own betterment. Though in both cases, as the manufacture of goods increases and production outweighs need, we become buried in the gamut of goods, and to even give them due consideration is beyond one’s individual capability.

The two pictures you mention with the guns again exhibit the bounding optimistic faith in how the access to goods will benefit our society, yet the Lyndhurst picture from 2004 is an indictment of that ideal and represents the real and ever present violent nature of the contemporary. The picture from 1954 shows the weapons as accessories – almost party favors – and as history builds from the moment that picture was taken, it conflicts with that sentiment. With the Copia photographs I was always aware of how those photographs would age, and that their meaning would potentially build over time. Sadly I think of the moment of making the Lyndhurst picture everytime a Newtown or Columbine occurs, or a parent mistakenly shoots an infant, etc… I hope that people see the impossible amount of violence in that display of guns.

Spending such considerable time working with these archive pictures has taught me much about photography and photographs in our culture. In addition to the dramatic language and knowledge of its intent and use in relation to the era, what a photograph can possibly depict is still a fascinating problem I love to tackle. Recently I’ve been attempting to use some of the language of the pictures from the 50s/60s press images in some new work, but also trying to build on its sentiment (or simultaneously subvert it). Optics are a profoundly powerful thing, and the way a camera can render a scenario, moment or subject poses such a complex set of equations. The technical nature of the medium is so intrinsically tied to the language and meaning of it, and these found images really reinforce that. Currently I’m trying to see if it’s possible to make photographs with large sheet film camera that can be spontaneous, where portraiture can have such a distinct connection to architecture and environment and light can be indicative of a psychological and even political thought.

A particularly thorny but important issue that seems to me to emerge in this archival work is the question of the manufacture of an aesthetic of class that is on the one hand imbued with moral virtue, but on the other hand is made to appear attainable to all at the mere cost of buying the right fedora, raincoat, Brooks Brothers blazer etc… This notion intersects in interesting ways with the question of economic and racial inequality. I wonder how you see those two phenomena developing through this archival work, and whether you think they will likely continue to feature as you progress with your ongoing photographic work?

I’ve often thought some of the biggest and longest standing issues in this country are the problems you mention. At points in our history, we can see policies and laws were implemented to exactly enforce a direct connection between economic class and racial inequality. What is troubling is the insistence of Americans to ignore those issues as they exist in contemporary culture or society.

I had a very specific agenda informing my selection of the press negatives I bought and found for the new work, which was initially based on the image’s relation to consumer culture. As I built my archive of these negatives, the issues of race and class sat right on the surface of some of them, and at times were subdued beneath the surface of the issues of others. In one image I found, the photograph depicts a dark and disheveled basement space. Paper, products and debris are strewn throughout the space. Three young African-American boys and one adult seem to be curiously exploring the site and its contents. The caption for this image was: “Looters in burned out store, Chicago 1966”.

Of course the relationship from that image to the ones in 2005 during the first days post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans brought up the same issues. Certainly the ensuing debate over those more recent photographs was long overdue, but sadly the sentiment remains.

I’ve long thought that what my work could potentially do is describe something far larger and deeper than the specific subject of consumerism. I’m more interested in these spaces and scenarios as the settings for all these vast American issues to play out. If consumer culture is so entrenched in our whole sense of American ideology, then it becomes the perfect place to see America as it truly is, in all its complexities. A lot can happen between a store like Dollar Tree and Tiffany’s. Most certainly you will see these issues and others play out. It’s no surprise these are the spaces in which photography is frowned upon, because they lay bare the psyche of America: they promise everything and deliver so little. So yes there is much more work to do. Daumier chose “The Third Class Carriage”.

In his essay “Reading an Archive: Photography between labour and capital”, the critic and photography historian Allan Sekula writes:

“Mass culture and mass education lean heavily on photographic realism, mixing pedagogy and entertainment in an avalanche of images. The look of the past can be retrieved, preserved and disseminated in an unprecedented fashion. But awareness of history as an interpretation of the past succumbs to a faith in history as representation. The viewer is confronted, not by historical-writing, but by the appearance of history itself.”

It seems to me that you are trying with this archival work, and also with the found objects, to in a sense rewrite a conventional history by abusing its own grammar, by refashioning it. But at one and the same time you’re trying to show the continuity of that narrative all the way into our present moment. What, for you, are some contemporary evolutions or iterations of the kinds of cultural norms we see carefully staged and depicted in these found images?

These images are curated, and I hope it’s very apparent that that is the case. I really did treat the press negatives like my own, which is to say that while they depict a real moment and real histories, they are very much part of my agenda and my fiction. There are facts in the photographs, but they must be teased out of the greater fiction. In the Copia work and this archive work, I use the fact that we have a difficult time in separating those two from each other to give the pictures more veracity. One of the great strengths of the photographic image is that people want to believe it, so therein lies the refashioning and co-opting.

In 2011, I was driving past a large dead mall here in Richmond. There was some event in the parking lot. I happened to have a digital camera with me, and spent the afternoon there. The township was having a press event to announce the demolition of this dead mall. Since I had a camera, it seemed that most people assumed that I was press as well. I couldn’t stop giggling to myself that I was transported back into the role of those very same photographers whose negatives I had bought, who 50 years earlier showed up to many of the same scenes.

The promises were delivered: ‘from the ashes of this dead mall will rise the phoenix of a Kroger supermarket who will rain upon the community jobs, tax revenue and fresh produce’. After the speeches the town trustees, officials and developers posed for photo-ops where they held golden sledgehammers aloft and smashed a small brick wall in the parking lot of the mall. In the 1940s, the golden objects were shovels; now they were sledgehammers. No one polices this strategy. It is a closed system between city and town officials and developers and commercial interests. We make no investment into whether or not this will indeed work in this time, and in this community.

In terms of archives, the problems that Sekula proposes are ones all photographers have to grapple with. I like to think that the difference between these press photographers and myself is I spend a lot of time putting context into the work. Not just authorship but conversations such as this, lecturing, the publications and so forth. The trick seems to be not to have your work simply fall into a nostalgia over time. Stephen Shore spoke about this often, and cleverly owned it. It’s one of the reasons I was so happy to discover his Lazarus department store had become a dead mall, and photographed it in 2009. It complicated the issue.

In the case of others, such as Garry Winogrand, one could argue that he gave little context to his work. His famous statement for his Guggenheim application was one of the most concise and clear articulations of his anger, frustration and embrace of the existential as he observed it in his contemporary culture. Do Winogrand’s pictures get nostalgic and lose the criticism so inherently in them without so much of his own words? I think it’s an interesting question.

This could be a distinction between a so called ‘art photographer’ and one of the more common ‘un-authored’ uses of photography. There are still images there that stand in our collective memory, but they are rarely authored (in our memory of them). In the case of someone like Vivian Maier, we have no context, or so very little that we have no construct to understand why in fact she was making those pictures, or how she felt about her surroundings. We can make assumptions from the work itself, and clearly she has many consistent proclivities. There are some allusions to her politics, and we’ll even get a feature documentary on her, but we’ll really never have a concrete statement of her intent. Given that, I might argue that the nostalgia attendant upon her images could creep in fast. Just like the negatives I selected, they can be re-used, and this seems to be the appearance of history Sekula describes.

Yes, and I think that if you like another interesting aspect of this re-emergence of the archive in contemporary photographic practice (which is not new, but which continues to evolve) is the recent run of new books featuring work from the 1980s on into the early 2000s on the one hand, and then the curated publications of found photographs on the other.

I think of the trilogy of Mark Steinmetz books, the recent publication of Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive, John Gossage’s The Actor, Alec Soth’s Looking for Love and even the forthcoming re-issue of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s Hustlers photographs. These kinds of books, when considered against other curated publications of found photographs like Welcome to Springfield by Michael Abrams, and Found Photos in Detroit by Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese, bring up interesting questions about the intentional interpretation of history through a critical engagement with a photographic archive.

It seems that some artists are engaging a question about how to construct a meaningful re-interpretation of history, which is the part of the rubric behind Welcome to Springfield, while others are looking at the way nostalgia can shift in images over time, even as certain themes remain unalterably relevant, as in The Actor, Rodeo Drive and Looking for Love… There is a risk here of not accounting for the politics of representation when publishing archival work, which I think Found Photos in Detroit falls prey to, but also an opportunity to talk about continuity and about the thin veneer of superficial change beneath which certain tropes and deep longings or societal problems still persist. What’s your view on this evolving dynamic in contemporary photography, and how do you understand this work fitting into that context?

As you say it’s something the author or photographer needs to pay very specific attention to. Just like musicians, when there is large interest in an artist, so comes the demo tape, back catalog, etc. The difficulty in photography is that nostalgia can have an extremely destabilizing effect on the content or issues that were apparent in the work when it was constructed. In other instances, it can become more powerful over time. Certainly something like Abrams’s Springfield book does it so well, because he’s remixing and re-contextualizing the photographs in ways that either subvert their content or co-opt the ambiguity. Others seem to embrace that nostalgia as a way to diminish the toughness of the content of the work. Think of the reception to Jacob Holdt’s book, which is so highly incriminating of large social and economic problems. I think the reprints of his book still are profoundly powerful, but it’s sad that it took so long for it to be looked at with seriousness.

Many uses of photography can fall prey to simply not looking at, or acknowledging the content of the image. I would hope that we, as serious investors in the photographic image, would make ourselves responsible for the narratives we put forth, regardless of the source of the material we use.

So where has all this left you in terms of your overarching project? How have things shifted as you’ve had time to sit with Copia, share the work with others, and begin to exhibit this new Close Out work? Any thoughts on what’s next?

Well, what started as such a little curiosity has taken me on a long journey of investigation. There are always times when I step back and reconsider whether I’m done with this subject, or I should say done with using consumer culture as indicative of larger political, economic and social issues. Yet I simply continue to find so much more to explore, and the topic is so overarching that it continues to demand attention. What’s invigorating is when it pulls me far outside of what I would normally define as my artistic practice. I wasn’t much of a collector until the ideas in the work pointed me down that road. As a result, now the Copia project has a prequel per se, and this also is big and vast and should be comprehensive.

A big part of my work is how it functions in the world, and whether at lectures, in books or exhibitions, these contexts and conversations also support the complexity of the work as well as how it fills in a larger dialogue of where we are, how did we get here and where might be be going. Last month I was a guest lecturer at the Ulrich Museum of Art in Kansas, in conjunction with a show I have of work in there called, ‘Stocked: Contemporary Art from the Grocery Aisles’. After the talk, photographer Larry Schwarm was kind enough to host a dinner at his home. There was a varied group of attendees: art enthusiasts, artists, educators, lawyers, one of the first franchisers of Pizza Hut stores, etc. We ended up in this wonderful conversation born out of the work in which we all were discussing where this country is now, with the large shift in economics and global influence. There were great strategies based on localism and local investment, the history of a city like Wichita and how it’s emblematic of many US cities over the last 50 years, and even how the larger political environment is shaping so much of our daily lives.

It’s a conversation long overdue, and not one I think we would have heard as much 20 years ago. People are looking to take responsibility for their communities and their situations. We’re combing through history, and seeing how in different eras, certain economic models in certain communities worked great but we abandoned some of those things in the new of progress of modernization. The fact of the matter is we are certainly smart enough to simply discuss and learn, and do it outside our prejudices and political leanings.

So the work continues at the moment, and I look for ways that it will evolve. I’m currently fascinated with the larger dissolution of the middle class. If the middle is shrinking, what does that look like? Where can one find evidence of that? They seem innocuous questions, and ones difficult to describe visually, but therein lies the challenge.




Artist(s): Medium: studio[at] Site: Twitter: @nibw

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