There’s a picture in the midst of the Thrift section of Brian Ulrich’s Copia work – it’s nominally unremarkable on the surface of things, cast in a resolutely ordinary steel gray light, snatched from the back of a delivery van on what I imagine to have been a nondescript street, taken at the point at which everything of value has already been removed so that what remains – like the morning-after residue of a bustling rave – seems wretched and dejected, seems an accusing index of some wanton excess. It’s a picture of a faded blow-up cutout selling some unspecified Britney Spears merchandise, and she’s framed dead centre in a quiet and profoundly desolate isolation – the forlorn and forgotten Belle of the Ball, a lonely Mona Lisa Smile. She is an outsize figure, truncated, bruised, scratched and lassoed, tied fast to the wooden slats that form a ribcage from which to hang troublesome produce as it’s carted about the city.
Properly speaking the picture sits somewhere between portrait and landscape – it’s vertical, but its epicentre expands outward to encompass in the narrow width of the frame the evacuated innards of a vehicle whose sole purpose its to ferry about more desirable objects for sale. Arrayed around the centre are objects in terminal disrepair – the broken fittings of a strip light, an empty ring binder, a discarded kiddy purse, rags and plastic and trodden green leaves, a hint of denim jeans and the delivery man’s trusty blankets. The picture is in a very real sense deeply metaphorical. It represents, in a single frame, a powerful commentary on the sordid morass of interwoven hopes and desperations that have been harnessed by our pathological culture of consumption, both of goods and of images. Both of goods and of images because what has been junked centre stage is not, in itself, a kind of good but the image of a range of products, the face that launched a billion sales.
So much of Brian’s Copia work, published in his debut monograph Is This Place Great Or What, operates simultaneously on these distinct and overlapping levels. The work is a sustained exploration and critique of the rabid half-life of appetitive consumption, of its scale, its apparent inevitability, its wastefulness and its cynicism. But that critique extends to images themselves – it does not proceed from some protean stance outside of society, but opens outward from a very definite place within it. The Britney Mona Lisa is at one and the same time an image of the excess of consumption (as much in terms of waste as immoderation) and a metonym for Art and for photography. If after a time we look on her in accusation, she gazes back at us locked within the same critical embrace – she is a picture, and so is the thing we’re consuming.
“It seems, then, that the question of desire is inseparable from the problem of the image, as if the two concepts were caught in a mutually generative circuit, desire generating images and images generating desire.” — W.J.T. Mitchell “Drawing Desire” in What Do Pictures Want?
What We Bought.
“And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby’s, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the “art object” of a thousand museum basements. It’s also reborn hourly in prisons, women’s shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway houses–wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of “The Tempest,” a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of “Citizen Kane,” whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life.” — Adrienne Rich “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts“, August 1997
It seems so fitting that Brian’s Copia work should have received a Guggenheim grant, which in its offering affirms the genealogy of American photography to which his work belongs, and which his pictures seek to extend. Some of the earliest articulations of the gradually cresting wave of consumerism emerged in the photographs of Walker Evans, in those pictures of his where the proliferation of signage foretold the coming craze of retail, the ever more insistent imprecation to buy buy buy. Evans’s photographs honed in on the viral sweep of this phenomenon, in such a way that the famous portrait of Citizen in Downtown Havana (1933) echoed and shared a sensibility and tone with his New York street photographs from some three and four years earlier. He had identified and taken note of the profusion of retailer’s efforts at persuasion within the American landscape, taken measure of its resilience and regenerative charms, and seen how its effects were visible in the character and garb of people walking the American street. Evans’ street photographs point up this conjunction of forces, they underline the performative function of the street – a function that was gradually diluted and reworked over the subsequent decades of cultural life as our living on the streets became a more private and solitary affair, a development crystallised in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Heads” pictures.
In the course of that gradual alteration people became atomised one from another – the cars Evans so ardently pictured were given great sweeping highways that worked to segment and to sift through social strata, introducing business parks full of tract homes and helping the middle class to desert the city centre. Robert Adams’ pictures of The New West – and more essentially the whole poetic arc of his entire body of work – studied and lamented aspects of this shift, and his Guggenheim fellowship helped to fund his attentive, critical admonishment of the separatism that it produced. Adams’s photographs in that period represent, I think, a moment at which a culture’s fallen expectation was reinserted into its view of landscape, a juncture at which utility smashed up against the failing bulwark of romanticism, and the whole heroic edifice of a pristine wilderness (any by extension a pristine society) gave way. In its wake we saw loneliness, neglect and disrepair – always tempered with grace. In its wake emerged a certain negligent ruthlessness in the organisation of public space and public life toward greater and greater extremes of stratification, underpinned by a gradual desolation of the land.
Brian’s Copia pictures are of the inside of the idea that Adams was photographing. They are illustrations of the portent to which those photographs alluded, and they express a direct and faithful respect toward the history of the ethos that made those pictures possible as it extends backwards through Adams and Frank to Evans and on. In a sense he has simply followed on in that line of exploration, and in the exhaustive and far-ranging journey he made, in order to outline the scale and immense dead weight of the phenomenon he was photographing, it is tempting to imagine that he alighted on some point at which Adams had made a picture of the plates shifting, the strip mall encroaching on bare land and drawing greater numbers of Americans out away from each other and into its embrace. The mall is after all, in its genetic code, a suburbanising mechanism – an edifice for the containment and homogenisation of people and culture into a bland microcosm in which, we are encouraged to believe, all of life’s needs can be met, all of life’s desires satiated, and endless days can be whiled away in a state of permanent entertainment. The reified promise of the strip mall, in Copia, has been conclusively deconsecrated.
In a photograph entitled Untitled 2005 (0505) (see above), from the Thrift segment, Brian makes a portrait of a man wheeling an overfull shopping trolley filled with clothes and homewares with an air of such bleak resignation that he seems somehow disembodied, elsewhere, spent. His eyes are located slightly off centre at the intersection of the lines that give the composition dynamism and compactness, and his magnetic gaze (try looking away from his eyes once you’ve looked into them) extends along the plane of the countertop and the shopping cart into an infinite and inscrutable distance. He is lopsided, ever so slightly. His arms in their positioning bear no relationship to his head, and this disjuncture is the physical expression of his disenfranchisement from the experience of himself at that moment. He has been made into an image of atomisation.
The instant that I saw the portrait I thought that this man had to have been stolen from a Dorothea Lange photograph. The thought came unprompted, and repeated viewings of the image only strengthen the conviction. Much in the way that Geoff Dyer has written about the promiscuous swarm of interchanging subjects and objects that continually trade places between photographs, in the sense in which he describes this black market as almost a living underworld or the product of a shared photographic subconscious, this picture of Brian’s is resonant of a particular moment in the history of photography — more specifically of the history of American photography. And that resonance cannot be, to my mind, entirely accidental. Brian’s pictures address head on the false dawn of the credit bubble, and anticipate by a measure of six years or more the return of that signal photographic trope of the Depression-era photograph and the immiserated American experience. In doing so, he enjoys the gift of great good fortune, which as someone wisely said, is the preserve of great photographers. This man, alone with his cart in a store that looks for all the world like a gutted out and refashioned pharmacy, brings with him an echo of the FSA photographs from 70 years prior to this specific moment, and the raw pragmatism of the circumstance in which we find him, quite probably in a basement, carries with it the same texture of hardship and neglect that animated the best work of that era. His photograph expresses a filial continuity with American history and the with the history of American photography. As Robert Adams wrote with characteristic lucidity about Dorothea Lange’s work:
“The bravery she was concerned to picture was usually set against the most common ordeal – tiredness, having to last. It is perhaps an especially American subject, endurance being one of the few glories open to many in a country where freedom is more valued than justice.” – Robert Adams – “Dorothea Lange” in Why People Photograph.
Developing the landscape.
There is an invisible marker that runs along the length of the pictures that make up Copia. It is imagined, but once conceived it can be seen clearly in invisible ink alongside the dates of each photograph. It serves to illuminate the gap between expectation and present circumstance, to undress the flagrant and persistent fallacy that has underscored the relationship between people and power so vividly in the preceding decade. It is a ticker for stock prices, but it is inscribed not only with the gadgetry of statistics — a percentage change, the red or green arrow indicating good or bad, up or down — but also describes the irremediable descent of the median wage, the stratospheric increase in personal debt, the disconnect between economic growth and the improved experience of living, the erasure from pubic view of the working poor, the widening expanse of joblessness, the unnumbered legions of civilian deaths, and the apparently irrepressible accumulation of wealth by the few. When we look at these pictures with an eye on the date we can recall the character and blatant disregard with which this fallacy was employed, not only in America but at virtually every corner of the globe. The photographs not only enable but implore us to tie them back to those moments, to dredge up the recollection of how wide was the gulf between what was declared, promised or celebrated, and what was in fact the visceral result. The apparent simplicity and seemingly transparent artlessness with which these photographs were made serves to force our view in on this fact, brings us up short against the the deceitfulness of that point in history and discourages any sense of our present circumstance’s inevitability.
It is in this sense and this spirit that these photographs began to be made. Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Brian set about trying to make pictures of that strange momentary experience of equality that brought so many Americans from differing extremes together in their grief. In that period where American society experienced a parenthesis, a moment of possible social relations governed not by tribalism but an essentially collective effort at togetherness, President George W. Bush launched the first of three major assaults when he urged Americans to go out and shop – to grease the wheels of an economy that had stalled for a moment along with a society pausing to contemplate its place and its responsibilities within the enormity of the events that had just occurred. The very notion that this should be done, and that it should be backed up with such forcefulness seemed somehow improbable to Brian – improbable enough that he set out to see if this was in fact happening, and how. If we can bring ourselves to recall that moment as we look at these pictures, they become a portrait of a cynical act of expropriation – of grief, of political freedom and eventually also of wealth – and at the same time an image of failed promise.
I think that a mixture of outright incredulity and an amazement at the epic scale of this improbable notion were strong motivating factors in the making of this work. Improbability and scale are, after all, central features of the American landscape from New York to the Grand Canyon and at all points in between. When we consider the central strands at play in these pictures, questions of the manufacture of desire, of the planned obsolescence of cultural products, questions of suburbanisation and social stratification, of economic inequality and the vast width and depth of neglect that has financed it, we can see that in some specific ways these are chiefly American themes.
It is a function of the vastness of that nation that these circumstances can exist on such a massive scale, and retail has a long relationship with strategies of dealing with vastness in American history. Figures like James Rouse and William Levitt set about revolutionising the social space in America following the Second World War – buoyed in their efforts by the creation of federal interstate highway systems – by building suburbia. Rouse is widely credited with the creation of the very idea of the strip mall, and both men created planned cities that continue to be associated with their names (Columbia, Maryland and Levittown, New York respectively). However the inception of these ideas occurred within a specific historical moment at which there was a perceived need to get the economy moving again, and they occurred against a backdrop of problematic inequality that in a sense gave these ideas license.
In a way so similar as to seem a little eery, cheap credit and house-buying rode to the rescue and in the process — as the homogenised miniaturisation of the city into a mall gained popularity — social stratification and the practise of battery farm consumption made themselves into a norm of American life. That cheap credit, house-buying and a war should join up again, in this present instance to such disastrous consequence, seems a cruel joke of history. But then just as figures seem to replicate themselves in photographs separated by decades, so too we know that history tends toward its own repetition.
An Image of Consumption.
So much of the weight of consumer apparatus depends, of course, on the production of desire – on the capacity of companies to generate a sense of lack where previously none was felt. Beyond the more self-evident (and very timely) political critique offered by Brian’s pictures, this idea is central too. His photographs never outwardly seek too earnestly the sheen of something beautiful, but achieve it by a seeming accident or spontaneous sincerity that is always everywhere sensitive to the ethics of the image, and the function of desire in our lives. This gives his pictures a dialectical tension between depiction and consumption, between statement and exhortation. Desire and its productions are restrained by a deliberate frankness in tone and approach, which unchains the attendant questions provoked by the images.
It is in their matter-of-factness that Brian’s photographs succeed in operating not from some moral high ground outside of consumer culture but from an at times messy and entwined position within it. His photograph of a cheap ceramic reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel — of the two fingers reaching out toward each other — set on a table amidst a copse of fake statuary and ceramics is as much a comment on the sordid cynicism of the art market as it is a jab levelled at box store retailing. His photograph of spilled milk like a bloodstain in a crime scene photograph is framed by rows of Faygo twelve packs that also deliberately recall Warhol’s Campbell’s soup pictures, and double the critique of those pictures back onto ourselves as consumers of art. What could be a more arbitrary pretext for art than spilled milk?
What makes these images more than a mere critique, however, is their deep well of concern. The Dark Stores photographs surpass the formal attractions of their own beauty by giving these empty stores the aspect of headstones and mausoleums, by reminding us in their morbidity of the fact that blood runs to these spaces, and that whatever the ethical misadventures of box store construction real lives are affected by their closure. One might twin an image like Kids R Us, 2008 with the portrait of Jennifer, working the dead end of an arduous shift at Savers and seated in a moment at which her exhaustion has bewildered her, rendering her mute and benumbed, turning her into a symbol of depletion. Such a pairing could not escape the question of serendipity, since in her fatigue her gloved finger is unwittingly pointing at the plastic head of a little girl’s doll we would expect to find in a Kids R Us…
All of this is to say that these photographs are deeply coherent, in the sense of consistency and clarity but also of unity. They combine to articulate an urgent demand for clarity and for a frank and searching inventory of those forces that have led us to such an extremity. They are testament to the virtue of persistence, and provide a wealth of cogent insight into what is perhaps the chief transformational force militating against our better selves in American and Western culture. They show with deep lucidity how the consumer turn equates individual identity with a choice of product and not community, with aesthetic and not relationship, with object and not geography, with affect and not conviction. Brian’s photographs, because they embrace and wrestle with such broad, complex and deeply interwoven themes, are (like all great bodies of work) many things in one, many things at once. They are a portrait of the false promise of choice, both in terms of consumerism and retail politics; they are a portrait of the false and fatal equation of individualism with progress; they represent an excoriation of the cynical half-life of the consumer idyll; they are an image of the devastation brought on by “empty prosperity”, and a demand to live with and fight against its effects consciously and in the full light of thoughtful reflection.
“If pictures teach us how to desire, they also teach us how to see — what to look for, how to arrange and make sense of what we see.“