Retail Therapy: Brian Ulrich’s Copia

2 minute read

Taken from the Latin word for plenty, Copia, is the 10-year-old brain child of photographer Brian Ulrich: his in-depth exploration of American consumer culture. The project consists of three-parts: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. TIME spoke with Brian about his inspiration for this project.

“The Copia project began as a simple curiosity: Were people out shopping in the months after Sept. 11th to follow a patriotic directive? It quickly dawned on me that the subject I began to explore was something a lot bigger; one historical, anthropological, ideological and indicative of American identity and psychology. It also seemed a crucial time with the change from one century to the next and one where paradigms were shifting faster than we could grasp.

So many of the ideas set forth in the 20th century—the American ideal, the manufacture of desire, the insistence on exponential growth—all brought us to a point where the measure of the quality of our lives is based on how much we spend and how much time we have for leisure. Once we began to equate this well-being with financial markets our futures were gambled. The financial market does as it is built to do, rise and fall, gain and recede, but with so much of our well being invested in it, we act surprised when the tides shift.

Currently the predominant thought is based on putting capital back into markets so they’ll pick up again and bring us back to where we once were; like jump starting a dead car battery. What we miss is how unsustainable that is. Even bigger is the idea that we as a nation are not made up of businesses, banks, malls, markets, homes or things. Our greatest asset is ourselves: our lives and our people. The real investment should be there.”

-Brian Ulrich

Photographer Brian Ulrich was previously based in the Midwest, and now resides in Virginia. An exhibit of Ulrich’s work will be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art from August 27, 2011 to January 16, 2012. The exhibit consists of 50 images from the Copia series. This is his first museum exhibit.

A book of the images will soon be published and can be purchased from the Aperture Foundation‘s website.

Ulrich was also recently on assignment for TIME shooting the planned destruction of houses in the suburbs of Cleveland which can be seen here.

Pep Boys, 2009 "At 1 a.m., after a long day, walking back to the car to pack up the camera, I looked back at this Pep Boys and cursed under my breath as I knew the picture would prolong sleep at least another hour. I woke the next day happy and tired." Caption comments courtesy of Brian Ulrich Brian Ulrich
Toys R Us, 2009 "It helps to be stubborn. The Dark Stores photographs were all made with a large 8x10 camera. It's a slow and laborious way of working. A lot can go wrong. This photograph was made over three trips starting in 2008 to the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. The first trip had exposure problems. In many cases the pictures were made over up to one hour exposures and if the humidity changes, the film can shift in the camera and blur. Finally, on this trip in January of 2009, during a blizzard I was delighted to find that even at 11 p.m. the snow reflected lots of light and made for an easier exposure. "A security guard on the property told me that Michael Jackson once shopped there."Brian Ulrich
Black River Falls WI, 2006 "On a return from a lecture in Minneapolis while stopping for gas, I came across this sign. I couldn't be more ecstatic. Here was the epitome of my whole idea in one single photograph. I never did ask the cashier for the details, but I did race back to Chicago, directly to the processing lab and waited for the film to get processed. Sure in mind, that if there was a problem with the exposure, I'd turn back and drive the five hours to retake the photograph. Luckily I did not."Brian Ulrich
Belz Factory Outlet Mall, 2009 "I found some pictures of this mall outside of Allen, Texas, on a Flickr blog. I booked a one way ticket and called my good friend, Sandy Carson in Austin to come up and meet me and to bring tools, a ladder and a van. When we arrived the mall was filled with smoke. In one room someone had lit an oil drum full of some flammable liquid on fire. The fire was making its way up the walls and spreading. We were not going to let some flames ruin our photographs so we found a bucket, filled it with the green putrid water from the center of this atrium, put the fire out and got busy. Smoke makes for good photographs anyhow."Brian Ulrich
Marshall Fields, 2009 "Part of the former Park Forest plaza. Now demolished."Brian Ulrich
Power House Gym, 2008 "This is one of the earlier Dark Store photographs. I found a fantastic blog online called Saginaw For Sale ( where some local residents were posting photographs of the rampant retail vacancy in Saginaw, Mich. I made a trip up there with friends Peter Baker and Cory Scozzari and we spent two days photographing along this long highway strip of retail. The Powerhouse Gym was one of the main reasons I went and after having some time during the day to make decisions about that photograph we waiting about three hours for dusk."Brian Ulrich
Sound Advice, 2009 "Sound Advice was a chain of electronics retailers in Florida. This location in Tampa, I scouted from online photographs and went out of my way to photograph it. It's interesting when the retailers leave their signs behind. Signs are often pricey to install or remove and it's a telltale sign of a quick and dramatic bankruptcy when they don't even made amends with the lessor or bank to remove signs."Brian Ulrich
Best Thrift, 2010 "In May of 2008 I made a photograph of an empty Circuit City. A month or so later they were all gone. Most of retail spaces are only really designed with the entrance in mind. The Circuit City stores are meant to mimic a large plug plugging into the earth. Commercials from that era animate the idea. In addition, I am fascinated that Capitalism reinvents its own rules to survive. I photographed several of these Circuit City stores, one masked in yellow, another white washed and being changed into another electronics store. This one, appropriate to my earlier work, had transformed into a thrift store."Brian Ulrich
Klingmans Furniture, 2008 "Like the Homeland Security threat level pictures, sometimes it seems as if photographs are laid out waiting for me. On a trip to Grand Rapids, Mich., I came across this large, long and empty furniture store anchored to a mall. On each window was this elegant and cryptic phrase, "Over 100 Years". I had long been thinking of my larger Copia project as one born from the manufacture of desire set in motion in the early 20th Century. This sign seemed to agree."Brian Ulrich
Kids R Us, 2008 "On Romig Road in Akron, Ohio across from the also vacant Rolling Acres Mall. When I was a undergraduate student living in Akron, I often went to this area to shop. In 2008 I was surprised to see it so empty. Blight can happen in waves were if one or three retailers fail, others will jump quickly ship and cut their losses. Kids R Us was a spin off of the Toys R Us brand and sold mostly children's clothing. Apparently Kids R Us stores were underperforming and the larger brand gave up on them all to focus on Toys and Babies. The cobalt blue sky comes from film attempting to describe the incredible subtle color of the early evening sky." Brian Ulrich
JC Penneys Dixie Square Mall, 2009 "Easter morning, 2009. This mall is famous for being used as the location for the mall car chase scene from the film the Blues Brothers. This was at 8 a.m. and walking the grounds, I encountered a coyote and red fox. Wildlife was moving back in to reclaim the asbestos landscape." Brian Ulrich
Untiled (Shoes), 2006 "After a long day of photographing in a thrift shop on the north side of Chicago, I came across a basement door. I had permission to photograph here as many of the thrift shops could easily understand why I would want to photograph the endless mountains of goods. Not entirely sure if the basement was off limits or not, I proceeded down anyway. To my surprise this avalanche of fake Nike shoes was spilling across boxes and boxes. I only had two sheets of 4x5 film left and spent over an hour trying to work out the picture. Later I had an exhibition of the Thrift work at my gallery in Chicago, this image was the show card and I sent it to some of the shops who had given me permission. The next day I received an early morning phone call. The owner was panicked. He had not known I had gone down to the basement and was worried that he might get in trouble for having so many knockoff Air Jordans. I assured him that the location would be anonymous and he was fine. He explained that he slowly brings several pairs upstairs to give the idea that there are some great finds in the thrift shop."Brian Ulrich
Untitled, 2005 (0505) "Thrift was meant to be photographs not just of the stores and items but a different consumer class than Retail."Brian Ulrich
Untitled, 2005 (0503) "One of the events that really triggered the commitment to photograph the thrift stores was the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. The daily broadcast and attention to issues of race and class in mainstream media was merely the tip of the iceberg of those enduring problems in our country. I thought the thrift shops could in some ways be an allegory for that dilemma where upper and middle class goods were cast down to a lower income consumer class."Brian Ulrich
Granger IN, 2003 "Taken during the week we first started bombing Iraq, in March of 2003."Brian Ulrich
Kenosha WI, 2003 "The employee-run big box store Woodman's, in Wisconsin. I returned years later and asked to photograph with a large format camera. They were extremely accommodating and later one employee explained, 'Someone made a photograph of near the milk section which was printed in the Chicago Tribune.' I smirkingly did not explain I was the author, content in the fact that taking the photograph helped make the store a lot more lenient on their policy of photographing in the store."Brian Ulrich
Chicago, IL 2003 "One of my mentors, photographer Paul D'Amato, remarked how consumer choice is an illusion when looking at some of my early photographs. While the bounty of goods seems to present a cornucopia of gourmet foods, the items in these displays are very specifically chosen for maximum profit."Brian Ulrich
Cleveland, OH 2003 "Some stores have become increasingly clever. Most of the toys in this photograph are not meant to be reachable by children or most adults. The whole space is meant to create an image (like a photograph), epitomized by Tinkerbell in mid-flight on the center screen."Brian Ulrich
Gurnee, IL, 2005 "Also tied to political controversy, this was during the debate over the first flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. It was incredulous to see this display so eerily mimicking that topic. Unrelated is the concept of the $9.99 price point, seemingly used for ideological goods."Brian Ulrich

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