Documentary Consumerism: Brian Ulrich

Ulrich Cell Phone

Brian Ulrich, Chicago, Illinois (Cell), 2003, Chromogenic print, 
30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm), Purchased with funds from the Friends of Photography, 2008.11.1

Have you ever stood in front of a vast variety of toothpastes at the grocery store and nearly wanted to pull out your hair? Or have you experienced a feeling of exhaustion after shopping for basic necessities? I know that sometimes the overabundance of cereal options leaves me simply flummoxed. If you empathize with any (or all!) of the above scenarios, you may find Brian Ulrich’s photograph Chicago, Illinois (Cell) to be eerily familiar.

This large-scale image, from Ulrich’s Copia series, illustrates a young woman standing in a refrigerated and packaged foods area of a large grocery store, staring at an endless supply of cheese, dips, wine and vegetable trays. Brightly illuminated by uniform fluorescent bulbs so prominent in retail stores today, the scene feels clean and controlled-almost hospital-like in its sterility. Ulrich’s lens focuses squarely on the young woman–interesting considering the woman herself seems particularly unfocused and wavering. Her eyes are wide and glazed over as she contemplates her options and calls (for reinforcements? for guidance? for a familiar voice?) someone on her cell phone. Her loneliness is palpable–though she attempts to reach out to a friendly figure through her phone, she is nevertheless alienated from any other shoppers she might encounter.  It is a scene that explores the madness of innumerable choices, the odd isolation found therein, and the overwhelming urge to consume that permeates American culture today, promoting two contradictory emotions–sympathy and revulsion–in the viewer.

Photographs in Ulrich’s Copia are divided into four separate categories: Retail, Thrift, Dark Stores, and Fair. Like Chicago, Illinois (Cell), other images from Retail feature aimless shoppers absentmindedly rifling through wads of money while glancing about intensely for their next purchase. Another tongue-in-cheek photo, taken in a Las Vegas casino in 2003, takes the words “Cash and Redemption” to a different level. Like the young woman in Chicago, Illinois (Cell), these consumers are looking for something–but the physical purchase may be just the tip of the iceberg. Are they looking to buy their way into a better life? Are they searching for fulfillment? Are they looking for the safety net of a familiar brand or product to steer their lives in the “right” direction?  These photographs are especially timely and even iconic in light of our current recession and the age of massive debt. Even more chilling are photographs from Dark Stores, which highlights the remnants of these shopping arenas once they, too, become victims of the economic times or the latest upgrade to the newer, bigger, better, and glossier.

Chicago, Illinois (Cell) is currently on view in the Modern and Contemporary Galleries at NCMA. (Catch it while you can before the galleries close September 7.) You can see more of Brian Ulrich’s work at his official website, To hear the artist speak about the Copia project, be sure to check out his interview on NPR’s The Story.

One Comment

  1. H. Meinutz
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    This is a tough economy, so it’s heartening to see NCMA offering timely exhibits like Ulrich’s photographs about loneliness and tough decisions that have a message to which we can all relate.

    It was especially helpful for me to read this blog entry and have finer points raised for me to consider. Great job. This type of insight and extended content is what NCMA should always strive for to bring greater life to the museum and draw in more visitors.

    Keep it up!

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