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photo-eye Book Reviews: Is This Place Great or What

Is This Place Great or What. Photographs by Brian Ulrich.
Published by Aperture, 2011.
Is This Place Great or What
Reviewed by George Slade
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Is This Place Great or What
Photographs by Brian Ulrich
Aperture, 2011. Hardcover. Illustrated throughout, 11-1/2x9-3/4".

Hello, Sisyphus. My name is Sisyphus. We are all Sisyphus here in this place.

Brian Ulrich's book is great, and a real downer. If you resisted President Bush's exhortations to shop America back to health after the events of 9-11-01, you may already be in line with the photographer. His Copia series, dating from 2001–2011, makes up the meat of this book. With mordant glee, the photographs insinuate that a decade of shopping has made us no better off; in fact, the rock we've been trying to shoulder up hill is flattening us.

How else to understand the tripartite sequence of this book, which follows Copia's chronological evolution? First, "Retail," individuals dazed by choice, mesmerized by the shopping mandate, caught in the thrall of messianic consumerism. Followed by "Thrift," the bubble breaking, consumer goods recycling en masse, reminding us of factories around the world ceaselessly producing junk that is briefly owned at full-price then resold at bargain stores. Finally, "Dark Stores," where the shop-'til-you-drop rallying cry came true on a big-box scale. Not much we can do for the global economy in those stripped-down temples.

Is This Place Great or What, by Brian Ulrich. Published by Aperture, 2011.
Is This Place Great or What, by Brian Ulrich. Published by Aperture, 2011.
The final few photographs offer ironic, hopeful notes. Vegetation is claiming the ruins. An exuberant "Yes" scrawls across a wall of glass, framing a cavernously emptied store; perhaps it's a cry of triumph, a non-branded voice in the dark. The toppled KFC bucket, proclaiming, in a contemporary paraphrase of P. B. Shelley's Ozymandias, "My name is Colonel Sanders, king of fried chicken/Look on my works, ye 'Mericans, and despair!"

Is This Place Great or What, by Brian Ulrich. Published by Aperture, 2011.
We do, Harland. Believe me, we do. But if you'll excuse us, we've got a boulder to move.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

1 comment:

  1. Love the frankness and dark humor of this review. The sheer volume of goods in some of the photographer's images speaks volumes (and volumes and volumes). My mother wants to introduce legislation requiring companies who construct big box stores to raze them after abandoning them. Meantime, those empty buildings and paved parking lots are the true monuments of our culture.

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