Mike and I made it over to the Haggerty Museum of Art last Sunday to see Brian Ulrich’s Copia – Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, exhibit. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I took away from it and the lively discussion Mike and I had about it afterwards - it’s an exhibit I highly recommend going to.
I should preface this post with a note that the topic of “dark stores” deeply interests me. About a year ago when my photography started to go in a different direction, I felt a pull to explore this question that was tumbling around in my head: what are we building that’s worth saving 50 years from now? So I went ahead and started my first “photo project” but ultimately stopped because it felt cliché. Like I’m the millionth photographer taking pictures of vacant buildings. The beauty of this project is that Brian weaves vacant stores into a larger narrative of consumer culture.
In Copia Brian explores three different aspects/stages of consumerism -Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores – to provoke questions and thoughts about not only the stuff we buy, but the whole economic system that we partake in. The first portion of the exhibit is Retail, which touches on the retail experience.
The first large image we were confronted with was a woman on a cell phone looking at the array of choices in front of her. Are we to assume she’s on the phone to ask for help on deciding which cheese to pick? Her face looks befuddled and, for me, this image not only captures the stagnation that comes from the vast amount of choices we are given in retail, but also how cyclical buying can be. We need cell phones so that we can call for help when we can’t decide what to buy…
This image is copyrighted by Brian Ulrich
The image that struck me most in this portion of the exhibit was a giant image of a Target checkout area. I’ve been a part of this scene hundreds of times. But spending three minutes to actually stop and look at it, without the emotions and haze that go along with the whole shopping experience, was startling. It really is the focal point of the store – giant red numbered flags that usher you through your purchasing experience. Seen out of context it’s quite patronizing, really.
I think it’s fascinating that he included thrift in this project, and it really made it quite impactful. I kept thinking, when I was in this portion of the exhibit, “where all the stuff goes to die”, which is weird because thrifting actually gives stuff new life. But the mood of the images is not jovial. It captures so well how not special the things we discard are that once felt so special when we purchased them.
Dark Stores completes the exhibit. It’s what you think it is: images of vacant big box stores and shopping malls. What’s interesting is his use of repetition – whether it’s one building through the four seasons, or the same style buildings through their various iterations of tenants – to dial in on the breadth and universality of bygone retail. It’s obvious the amount of time this project took (a decade!), and it makes us confront the fact that it’s not as simple to discard the infrastructure that holds all the stuff we so easily discard. Additionally, the decision to make many of the images of vacant retail big box stores at night is brilliant. The storefronts take on an almost gravestone-esque quality.
I heard a statement the other day that completely resonated with me (actually the whole video did that). In the video Lewis Baltz, a key player in the New Tophographics movement in the 70′s, discusses what makes photography so compelling: “Photography begins with a world that is, perhaps, overfull and it needs to sort out from that world what’s meaningful.” I used to put photography into two camps: obvious and abstract. I thought obvious photography wasn’t as artistic, and therefore not as meaningful, as more abstract photography, i.e. taking an image straight on of a building vs. making the building look like something it’s not by shooting from an interesting angle or vantage point. I realize now how wrong I was to think that. Although composition and lighting are important, what can be just as important are the questions raised by an image or sets of images. Sometimes, making someone stare at something they see every day, taken out of the context of busy life, is as impactful as a mysterious Saul Leiter composition.
This set of images asks some really tough questions. Why do we feel anxiety when we go shopping and is this something that’s necessary? What are the forces that go unnoticed that make shopping so enticing? Where does our stuff go when we get rid of it? What do we do with the buildings we’ve built that we no longer need? Why are they empty?
You can see Copia at the Haggerty Museum of Art on Marquette’s campus until May 18, 2014. The Museum is free and open to the public.
Find out more about this project and Brian’s other work here. Also, a great feature on the project on Time’s Lighbox.