The Photographic Alphabet: U is for Brian Ulrich
By Erica McGrath
Have you ever felt sad or alone and tried to fill that void in your emotions through the use of a special kind of therapy, retail therapy? It’s not shocking anymore that American culture equates to Consumer culture, the endless circle of buying and consuming or consuming and then buying is normalized in modern society. After the events of September 11th Americans were highly encouraged to go out and buy American made products as a way to display their patriotism while helping boost the American economy. American photographer Brian Ulrich decided to take a closer and more critical look into the consumer culture. His decade long project focuses on the darker undertones of selling, consuming, and buying, and what that really means as the American way of life.
The ideals behind consumer culture, or retail therapy, are plain and simple; buying equates to happiness. It’s not a hard line to sell. Ulrich examines this material world and presents it in the bleakest way possible. His photographs of stores and consumers are sardonic and overwhelming. Massive amounts of products line the shelves of stores, stuffed animals overflow in bins, check out lines go on and on with no end in sight. Often the subjects present in Ulrich’s images either have their backs turned to the camera, their faces half hidden, or they stare expressionless and melancholic. Not much happiness or joy can be found inside Ulrich’s material worlds. “Is this place great or what!” reads a poorly made sign above a backroom in a store featured in Ulrich’s image Chicago, IL 2007.
These photographs seem otherworldly in which a civilization lives under a consumerist religion. In Ulrich’s image Chicago, IL 2006 a display of multiple packaged crucifixes are on sale for $9.99. In another image also titled Chicago, IL 2006 a family inside of a store stares into an image projected on multiple television sets of a man dressed in white raising his arm in a matter that indicates him as a religious leader. The religious undertone permeates all of Ulrich’s images showing consumerism is not just an idea but a way of life for Americans.
Brian Ulrich’s photographs of consumer society are subtle and smart in their commentary but his feelings on consumer society are clear and present. In an interview with Time magazine Ulrich states, “Currently the predominant thought is based on putting capital back into markets so they'll pick up again and bring us back to where we once were; like jump starting a dead car battery. What we miss is how unsustainable that is. Even bigger is the idea that we as a nation are not made up of businesses, banks, malls, markets, homes or things. Our greatest asset is ourselves: our lives and our people. The real investment should be there."