Photographer Brian Ulrich captures contemporary consumerism

Alex Ajayi

Photographer Brian Ulrich presented “COPIA: From The Mall to the Shell,” a photographic commentary on contemporary consumerism, Thursday, April 30. The lecture, which took place in the Wriston auditorium, is part of the art and art history departments’ visiting artist series for this academic year.
Ulrich earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from Columbia College. “Copia,” Ulrich’s first book, was published in 2006 by Aperture as part of the MP3: Midwest Photographer’s Project.
He began his “Copia” project in 2001, partly as a reaction to post-Sept. 11 America.
“Copia came out of curiosity. When bad things happen, they make us understand each other,” said Brian Ulrich. Ulrich uses his camera as an analytical vessel to assess the commonly held notion that in times of hardship and strife, nationalism is measured by how much Americans shop.
Ulrich describes the post 9/11 governmental manifesto that fueled a new wave of consumerism on his blog.
“In 2001 citizens were encouraged to take to the malls to boost the U.S. economy through shopping, thereby equating consumerism with patriotism. The “Copia” project, a direct response to that advice, is a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live,” said Ulrich.
“Copia” is divided into three chapters: “Retail,” “Thrift” and “Backrooms,” each offering a unique commentary on popular consumerism. Ulrich begins his retail journey at Ikea, a landscape he describes as the “most insane place I have ever seen in my life.” Ulrich was able to get candid shots of consumers interacting with the manufactured culture.
It is important for Ulrich to become part of the landscape he is trying to photograph. “Rather than chasing people around with a camera, which is creepy, I’m patient. I’ll actually walk through the stores, find a good backdrop and lighting, and wait with the camera for someone to walk to it,” said Ulrich.
Ulrich’s photography captures images we are all very familiar with: a $799 casket sale sign in Costco that reminds us of our finiteness, a milk spill on aisle three right in front of the endless cartons and flavors of Faygo sodas, a “punk” girl trying on “punk” shoes – even her rebellion is manufactured – $9.99 lounge chairs tucked in U.S. flag cases mounted like flag draped coffins.
A particularly bizarre and appropriate piece captured a “Homeland Security Threat Level Today – Please see the cashier for more details” sign in a gas station, making a clear connection between our nation’s obsession with the “war on terror” and our need to shop.
In April 2009, Ulrich was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for photography. Ulrich and his predecessors, which include legendary photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Diane Arbus, were awarded the grant by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for their scholarly and creative contributions to the arts. Ulrich’s work is currently held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum of Fine Art Houston and Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. “Copia” can be found on Ulrich’s blog at