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Short interview with Brian Ulrich.

Brian Ulrich was born in 1971, his work ‘Copia’ portrays the retail and thrift stores that you can find everywhere in the United States. Brian Ulrich was one of the PDN 30 emerging photographers of 2007 and in 2004 Aperture published ‘Copia’ as part of the MP3: Midwest Photographers Project. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.

In your opinion, what makes a good photo?

To apply a formula to something that like creativity is an ambitious and interesting endeavor but certainly one that could threaten the creative process. I think it difficult to say what makes a ‘great photo’. I remember Saul Leiter telling me ‘if you could make one really great photograph a year, in fifteen years you would have 15 really great photographs’. It’s a humbling and daunting charade but well worth it.

What makes you want to capture a photo? What you must see in a subject to make you release the shutter?

Taking my photographs is often much like the experience of shopping itself. There is so much visual stimuli in these spaces, to sort that out and keep in mind a concept or idea can be overwhelming. I’m simply ‘shopping’ for pictures. Many factors decide where and when. In the large big box retail stores, I’m almost always doing things candid, so foremost I look for a place where I sit or stand for a bit of time, as well as one that has an interesting backdrop and decent lighting. From there it’s simply whoever walks into that space. I’m shooting film and all handheld, so for pictures with people they have to pause, hold still, have no one walk in the way, etc… and of course have a specific expression I’m looking for, one where we ourselves can easily imagine getting inside the subjects’ heads.

Name a few photographers that inspired you and your work and why they inspired you.

Walker Evans’ Penny Picture Display in Savannah, GA is a photograph that sticks in my head and has taught me many things about how powerful photographs can be. Looking at Evans picture of pictures done in 1936, it’s easy to marvel at how over time this image has gained more power historically. It would be easy to say the image pre-dates thoughts on post-modern discourse, typologies and social criticism. The real intrigue for me is how the photograph functions. Evans cropping, not of the negative, but of the world itself makes for an ambiguity that feeds a mystery over what it is indeed before us. A large text ‘S T U D I O’ runs across the foreground of the picture and it’s backdrop; small tiny sized portraits all formally the same.
It’s the fact that Evans gives us nothing else but this to look at here. The viewer has no ground, no reference and no other information to make conclusions about what is going on in the picture and why. With so little clear information as to what I am supposed to understand about this image, I keep reinvesting in it to find out why. Perhaps the clue is in one of those portraits or the way the text sits over the images. Who are these people? Why just the word studio? I am left with so many questions that I return to reconcile my investment and my peace of mind. Evans cleverness is that we never reconcile this image we just keep enjoying the mystery.
Mark Steinmetz once commented to me that Evans ‘hit the photographic jackpot every time he went out to make photographs’. He’s right. We’ve all been trying to continue his investigations and there is still so much to be done.

Brian Ulrich website.


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