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A Closer Look -- Is This Place Great Or What

from Is This Place Great or What
From Aperture and The Cleveland Museum of Art, Is This Place Great Or What by Brian Ulrich is the publication of his ten-year Copia project, documenting the consumer-centric atmosphere of contemporary America. The project grew from Ulrich’s curiosity at whether the 9-11 request of George W. Bush for Americans go out and shop to support the country was truly taken to heart. As economic turmoil overtook the country, it was clear that what Ulrich was documenting was a massive story. Separated into three sections, Is This Place Great Or What is a triptych of the collapsing American consumer system.

The book is split into three parts, Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. In the first, we see familiar scenes in big box retailers. Entering stores that typically do not allow photography, Ulrich did not scout his images, but seated himself inconspicuously and waiting for his shots to come to him. They are impressive images in their adeptness at capturing the atmosphere of these experiences. Avoiding a sensational approach to depicting American consumption -- there are no black Friday images of overcrowded isles and monstrously excessive purchasing -- Ulrich instead presents the psychological condition of shopping. Paging through we see well ordered absurdly decorated interiors, and oddly detached human expressions -- the shopper's version of the 1000 yard stare, weirdly glazed over, at once desperate and bored, or perhaps just internally focused. Humorous juxtapositions add an absurd levity, but heaviness cannot be avoided. The impersonal spaces of endless product displays, set off by a few shots of miserably shabby back rooms, impersonal in a whole other way, evoke the distressing nature of material desire.

from Is This Place Great or What

In Thrift we see what is generated by a culture of excessive purchasing. Here, the focus is not on the shoppers but the store employees and volunteers who are saddled with sorting and making sense of the donated items. It is a Sisyphean task, the overwhelming nature of which can be seen in the eyes of Ulrich's subjects. In these locations his desire to photograph was met with complete understanding -- the thrift stores invited him in and even suggested the best days for shooting when the piles would be up to the ceiling. Indeed, Ulrich captured shelves full of white plastic-cased computer accessories -- printers, monitors, faxes and towers -- their planned obsolescence making them nearly useless for all. Clothes over flow from industrial laundry carts, VHS tapes fill shelves -- endless piles. These spaces are so markedly different from the retail spaces of the previous section, they are worn and confused, overwhelmed by their products. There is so much gathered in these spaces, and so much of it will end up as refuse.

from Is This Place Great or What

Dark Spaces follows this line of excess to the retail spaces themselves. Now seen in various states of decay, devoid of shoppers and product, they are empty carapaces of the once vibrant retail animal. At times, they are post-apocalyptic looking — there's hardly a more eerie sight than vacant anachronistic trendy architecture. The desolate buildings are odd spaces, which Ulrich captures with an almost morbid humor -- window decals reading "100 years" and "Yes" -- but also tenderness, these images are among the book's saddest. They are also the most formal, with Ulrich recognizing his new topographics predecessors, particularly in the image Richland Mall, 2009 (after Stephen Shore, 1973). Photographed by Shore in its bustling days, the Lazarus department store is reshot by Ulrich, now closed and empty.

from Is This Place Great or What

The book concludes with Ulrich's essay, ephemera collected by Ulrich during shooting, and a fantastic essay by Juliet B. Schor, which can get a little overwhelming as the enormous scope of the problem outlined in Ulrich's photographs are driven home with history and statistics. Yet the essay also makes it evident that this is the beginning of a new era, a post-consumer America. We aren’t there yet, but the following years will show how this transformation will happen. Ulrich has mentioned his interest in attempting to portray how this era began, and with any luck he’ll document how we move out of it. -- Sarah Bradley

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by:
Raymond Meeks

Purchase Is This Place Great or What

Given its timely nature, it’s no surprise that Ulrich’s project has appeared in a number of magazines and blogs. Here are some of the best:

  • A wonderful interview by John Mahoney for American Photo that discusses the process of making the images in the series and gives Ulrich the opportunity to share some great stories. 
  • An academic essay putting Ulrich and his work in a historical photographic context can be found at The Great Leap Sideways.
  • A music heavy but good interview with Ulrich from the Art Uncovered podcast.

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