At one point in my life I thought photography was a sham. All you have to do, I reasoned, is press a button and cross your fingers in hopes that the shot comes out in focus. What kind of skill does that take? I am now enlightened and realize that photography is a technical and skillful craft that is difficult to master. Composition, lighting, subject matter, printing techniques, and many other components are to be considered when creating an aesthetically pleasing photo, and even when an artist makes all the right choices, the image can still turn out ineffectual.
Now I have a newfound respect for photography, and I am in love with C-Prints. They're usually big, vivid and, most importantly -- they seem genuine. The subject of a painting could be completely fictional, but there's no faking photography. I know that's not entirely true when you take into account Photoshop, air-brushing, and staged shots, but the illusion of reality is always present in a photograph.
I'll get to the point -- I saw Brian Ulrich's exhibition of eleven selections of large-scale photographs from his ongoing series entitled Copia. The series was started in response to Bush's "Go shopping!" manifesto after 9/11, which is why Ulrich's message, though clear, seems slightly dated. Even so, comments on consumerism in the US are always applicable as we continue to shop like it's going out of style.
Ulrich captures subjects we can relate to -- a woman with a cell phone pressed to her ear stares wide-eyed at the wine and cheese section of Jewel-Osco (the Midwest's answer to Albertson's) -- who hasn't had trouble deciding whether to get the '93 or the '94 Merlot? He also captures scenes we're familiar with, like the gnarled mess that can occur when a toy aisle at Wal-Mart is left unattended for too long. My personal favorite was an enticing composition of Target check-out lines. The depth of field is quite lovely, and there's something so pleasing about little red signs lined up in a row. I'm biased because Target is my Happy Place, but I assure you that Ulrich can candidly photograph a middle-American consumer wasteland like nobody's business.
In most of the photos, Ulrich doesn't stray far from the ever-present grid formation that artists and viewers alike are attracted to, whether they know it or not. One of the central photos in the exhibit features spilled milk in the Faygo soda aisle. The orange, yellow and lime-green crates of soda, the tiled floor, the wood-paneled wall and the plastic curtain protecting the dairy products create a stunning composition, especially when punctuated with a puddle of milk. It's no wonder that the original and the four limited edition prints of this piece are already sold out.
Ulrich's work reminded me of Bill Owens, a photographer who shoots in grocery stores and is obsessed with food. I also thought of Catherine Wagner's commissioned series of shots taken at Disneyland because one of Ulrich's photos features a tiny girl who is almost invisible amongst the paraphernalia in a Disney Store. I wonder if Ulrich received his nasty letter yet. Someone should purchase that Disney Store piece before it's too late; otherwise it'll have the same fate as Wagner's Disney shots -- impossible to find online due to sanctions imposed by Mickey Mouse and his thugs.
What I loved most about Ulrich's exhibit was the dichotomy of seeing images of decidedly ordinary locations on display in an upscale gallery. I also found it hilarious that even though the exhibit commented on the ugly side of consumerism, I still found myself looking at the photos saying "I want that!" just like the good little consumer that I am. Seriously, that Faygo soda aisle shot would look terrific in my kitchen. My birthday's coming up soon for anyone who needs gift ideas.
Brian Ulrich: Copia
Robert Koch Gallery
49 Geary St.
July 6 Â– September 2, 2006