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Zombie Shoppers And Ghost Signs: A Photo Essay On Our Consumer Culture

A Chicago photog travels across the Midwest, capturing images of shopping centers both successful and abandoned.

There’s a German term called Konsumieren Rausch, or consumer intoxication, that refers to the unique psychology of the shopper. You’ve probably felt it, if you’ve ever sat down on an Ikea display couch overwhelmed, or failed to excuse yourself for bumping into someone else at a crowded store, simply because you’re so absorbed in the hunt. The concept fascinates Chicago photographer Brian Ulrich, whose series, Copia, was spurred by George W. Bush’s 2001 call for Americans to boost the economy by spending.

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Copia is Ulrich’s attempt to capture both the Konsumieren Rauch and its aftermath. Unlike some of his “ruin porn” peers, Ulrich photographs both bustling and abandoned stores–a juxtaposition that somehow makes his work more eerie. We see dense aisles of vacant-looking shoppers in one photograph, and an empty Auntie Anne’s in another (pretzel-measuring guides still laminated to the counter). His subjects (most of whom aren’t aware that they’re being photographed, thanks to Ulrich’s diminutive SLR), are caught glass-eyed in the process of digging through bins and trying on shoes. Paradoxically, the populated images feel far lonelier than the abandoned stores.

This spring Ulrich’s first major solo show, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, surveyed 10 years of work on Copia, including photographs that were shot just after Dubya’s “patriotic shopping” pledge, as well as images captured during the 2008 crash. The 41-year-old photographer organizes the work into four categories: retail and thrift (which are populated), dark stores (which are not), and relics, a recent addition to the series made up of found objects Ulrich scavenges from his locations.

“The compulsion to collect physical things grew out of the act of photographing itself,” he writes on his website. “After spending some countless hours trying to photograph a sign on the outside of a long-abandoned mall, I came to the conclusion that while the 8×10 camera really does transform something so dramatically, some subjects test its limits.” His solution, of course, was to take the sign itself. The relics are fascinating–hung on the gallery wall, they transcend whatever context they were plucked from to take on sculptural qualities.

Most of Ulrich’s images come from across the Rust Belt–Cleveland, Schaumberg, and Illinois are frequent locations–and show a nation in the midst of massive change. Ulrich himself refuses to mince words about the subtext of his work: “The stores themselves seem the real indicator that Late Capitalism is failing,” he told one interviewer in 2008. “The economic model of basing a nation’s well-being on the profits of the smallest percentage of our country is one I believe is terribly misguided. The abuse of that system leaves communities in neglect, unemployment rates rising and a skyrocketing trade deficit.” Embedded within the high-color photos, a grim summary of the American economy.

[H/t The Architect’s Newspaper; Images courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art]

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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