Monday, May 25, 2009

An Interview with Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich
11x14" edition of 15, 40x50" edition of 5

Brian Ulrich is one of the most talented and prolific photographers in the current world of Contemporary Photography. Just a few weeks ago, Brian was also selected as  the recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship award

I sent Brian's these interview questions a few months ago before all this happened and they were part of The State of the ART Market interview Series. I gave more time to Brian because, I know how busy he always is. 

With a solo show opening this Thursday May 28, 2009 at the Julie Saul Gallery and with a selection of works from the photography series Thrift (2005 - 2008) and the currently in progress Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls, the timimg is just perfect due the thematic content of the photographs and our current economic climate.

If you are not familiar with Brian Ulrich's work , I suggest you start knowing  now. If you aspire to collect American Contemporary Photography, I suggest you start collecting Brian's work. Not only he is one of the best talents and educators out there now, he is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Lets see what Brian has to say!

Ruben Natal-San Miguel- As most of us know, you are a Photographer based out of Chicago Illinois, Can you tell us in your opinion how is the Current State Of the Art Market in the Mid-West Area?

Brian Ulrich
TARGET, 2008
11x14" edition of 15, 40x50" edition of 7

Brian Ulrich-The current state of the art market everywhere seems in flux! In general the mid west has always had to compete with the coasts. Most collectors like to make trips to NY, or LA, etc... to peruse through the many galleries. To some buying work in your hometown can be less of an 'event'. To the contrary though there are some fantastic artists making very strong work here and the community is very supportive of each other. As well there are some collectors who are super supportive of mid west artists and will always buy work, others could care less about where an artist lives and just look at the work regardless. So a barometer of this is difficult. Things are shifting and in some ways the artists here who are more likely to supplement their work by other means are already 'prepped' for a downturn.

RNSM.- Is this affecting in any way your photography assignments? Your Fine Art work?

Brian Ulrich
14x11" edition of 15

BU-For me, editorial and commission work is a challenging way of putting myself in new situations to problem solve my way out of. When the job seems like an interesting venture and I have the time I'll certainly take it. I wouldn't say I'm getting more or less. I have noticed prices for some jobs getting lower with editorial often giving me smaller budgets to work with. Not much of a problem with me as i'd rather drive than fly and stay with a friend than in a hotel.
As for my own work the economy is certainly giving me a lot more to photograph! Somehow I've managed to survive on my work enough to simply continue it. My definitions of success as an artist and person are not based on a pipe dream of monetary windfalls. It really only happens to so few artists. If I can continue and give back to my community (in the form of hiring other artists to assist me, teaching, workshops or otherwise), things couldn't be better.

Brian Ulrich
TOYS R US 1, 2009
11x14" edition of 15, 40x50" edition of 7

RNSM- Has your inspiration changed making you redefine your retail series or just created new ones? Please Explain

BU-I was pretty lucky to stumble across a subject that is continually changing and ever complex. The big box Retail series gave way to Thrift, Thrift led to Backrooms and as of late, the newest project Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls. Through all this I've become even more keenly aware of the history of the project and I'm often making references to older pictures, which changes or further informs them in new ways. It can sometimes appear like a bit too epic of a project from the outside but I'm confident in the end result.

Brian Ulrich
14x11" edition of 15, 50x40" edition of 7

RNSM- How about as an Educator?

BU-As a teacher, entirely. When the market turns all so many of the young people who came to school thinking there was a bevy of collectors and galleries awaiting them with open arms when they graduate are slowly coming to the realization that the practice of making art has to have a bigger and often more personal motivation. Like my work, my teaching is based on the premise of raising people's consciousness of how we live in the world and how we might empower ourselves. Understanding media, advertising and helping students to become more visually literate not only enforces those ideas but will give them better tools in their own artistic practice. Writings by John Berger and Marshall McLuhan become more relevant than ever.

RNSM- Do you think that the current economic climate has affected the students creativity in any way? How? Why?

BU-As above, if the motivations are not for some degree of art world success then the work can become more paramount. Why would anyone ever take up this practice? What impact can it have on the self, the community and outside art communities? These are all questions I'm hearing from students today and I can't tell you how invigorating that is. What if success as an artist is not based on an ad in Artforum but rather how it informs people in the community (however big or small one defines that community).

Brian Ulrich
LEVITZ, 2008
14x11" edition of 15, 50x40" edition of 7

RNSM- Is the economy and current topics such as change of government ever discussed in class as a way to motivate students creativity?

BU-Last fall during the election all my classes discussed topics about the election and the sense that for them, after coming into adulthood under the Bush administration, that there really could potentially be a paradigm shift in the culture.

Brian Ulrich
14x11" edition of 15, 50x40" edition of 7

RNSM- Some of us saw your photograph of a Circuit City gone out of business, Are you in the process of doing a photojournalist series based on disappearing businesses?

BU-I wouldn't call it photojournalistic but rather an art project that leans towards propaganda. The project Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls is an extension the Copia project and my earlier work. In some cases I'm photographing the same spaces I photographed in 2002 now closed and boarded up. With so much investment in a retail based economy it was bound to fall. When you set up an economic model that is only successful when there is exponential growth, you're setting up a real problematic situation. We are seeing the results of that now that many in the lower income citizens have been experiencing all along no matter what the GDP says.

RNSM- You had the eye on the consumerism aspect and the interaction and reaction of people towards retail and shopping...What got you started ? Why?

BU-The project began back in 2001 after 9/11. I wanted to see if people were in fact 'patriotic shopping' as the then president had instructed us to do. Once I really began to examine the environment of shopping culture it immediately stripped away much of the illusion of the places and revealed a society that seemingly acted outside of their own accord in response to advertising gimmicks. The idea and issue of a society so wrapped into a post-modern illusion seemed so huge and important that I had to try and make pictures of it. So the man holding the fishing pole isn't just overwhelmed with choice but he's acting exactly as the store, brand and culture prescribe.

RNSM- Were you by documenting such aspects of retail sort of forecasting its demise?

BU-My first book moquette for Copia was exhibited at my MFA show in 2004. It was set with faded out romanesque type and bright white pages. Even at that point after 3 years of working on Copia it was clear that this way of living was not based on sustainability. Other civilizations have fallen over less.

Brian Ulrich
11x14" edition of 15

RNSM-As you well know by now, I am great admirer of your work because its message and some sort of dark humor behind is very sophisticated and highly intellectual you think the average person gets it? Why?

BU-One of the reasons I'm interested in my work acting as a sort of propaganda is that it uses the language of photograph to communicate a concept. People understand this stuff whether it's through a giggle or through some sort of awakening. The work acts as a reflection in many ways of our own lives, there are obvious and subtle things there, just like our own lives. The pictures let us stare indefinitely which one has to do to get the idiosyncratic aspects but I also like that the work can act as simply as people shopping.

RNSM-In my opinion you are a pretty successful photographer, most ones usually move or already live in NYC...Why you remain in Chicago? (I know a gorgeous city).
Your family is in NY State...Had you ever thought about moving back? Why?

BU- grew up in Long Island suburbs and spent a lot of time making trips to the city. Even in the 80's when NYC was really struggling, those trips were always filled with excitement and mystery. After my undergraduate education I did move back to New York. I felt (and still feel) for myself it can be difficult to make work. I'm one who enjoys having the freedom to investigate my ideas fully and while that's certainly possible there the cost and pace of living can makes more anxious than creative. Another part of this is I like to explore and there are so many other interesting areas in this country I want to know, NY can be so insular and even claustrophobic.
I've found Chicago a nice balance btwn. the NY and a slightly more relaxed atmosphere. It most of all allows me to be closer to my subject. An hour drive in any direction will lead me to various small industrial areas, suburbs or farmland, this is like having much more of the greater part of America smashed up on your doorstep. The community here does have many opportunities for young artists in terms of venues, in addition to a community of artists who are more likely to collaborate and be forthcoming with exchanges of ideas/opportunities. The incentive to do that is high as it only leads to more attention to the community and thusly increases the quality of work.

RNSM- Your work has such a strong Americana presence,imagery and message...How is your work conceived in another countries? Europe?

BU-Strangely, I haven't really had much attention from European audiences. I've often thought that would be the case but perhaps since the work presents an America that is quite similar to Europe it mirrors more of the degree to which our societies have been more homogenized globally. I have had encouraging reactions to much of the work through magazines and some shows. A large fashion magazine published a beautiful portfolio of the Thrift work last year. The French Le Monde magazine published a suite of photographs along with an interview with economist Jeffrey Madrick which was a poetic pairing. There have been some shows in Munich, England and the Netherlands but maybe Europe isn't yet ready. Which is fine in some respects, as the project is ongoing.

Brian Ulrich
11x14" edition of 15, 40x50" edition of 5

RNSM- Can you tell us what are you working on right now?

BU-I just received a Guggenheim Fellowship that will hopefully allow me to take some time off from teaching to really focus on some traveling and photographing. I plan to work further on the Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls chapter and then the idea is to revisit many of the earlier ideas of Copia all at once. Next year, I have plans to begin the process of editing almost 10 years of photographs in one book that would be a marker of the first decade of the 21st century visited through the veneer of consumerism.

Untitled, Thrift 2006 (0635)
by Brian Ulrich

RNSM-In your opinion what is your assessment for the future of the Art Market?

BU-Woah this is a big question. Again with a shift in economy comes some changes and people often have to ask hard questions. With much of the excesses of the 20th century brought into the 21st a dilemma; the production of objects outweighs the ability to consider them. The art market fell victim to this as much as any other. I have already noticed this change and perhaps we don't need as many objects or as many shows, magazines, artists, venues, etc. Over the last few years it was so sad to see so many clearly putting up the most weak mediocre work at artfairs simply because the audience was so huge and buying. 'Sale-able' reigned supreme which doesn't necessarily merit profound and lasting works.
I was quite encouraged to see my gallery Robert Koch in San Francisco do a group show called Dystopia in February which highlighted the fact that many of their artists were responding to social/political issues through their work. It was a show that a museum would have to jump through some serious hoops to do. I don't think they would have done that show a year ago.
If we simply change our qualification of what 'success' is then we're all fine. Success does not have to be sold out shows but could really be the luxury of being abel to participate, make work you love and communicate with a community who will consider the objects you create. I'd like to see more of that spirit held high in the art market. It's tough there is a lot at stake but loving the thing you buy should outweigh investment, in my opinion.

Brian Ulrich
CHANEL, 2008
14x11" edition of 15, 50x40" edition of 7

RNSM- How do you think ART community can pull together and brace tall this current turmoil?

 BU-As above, the community has to act like one. Artists like Cara Philips and Amy Elkins and the Humble Foundation are putting together grants for artists. They barely have money themselves but are working hard to support the community. This as an artistic gesture is huge and hopefully inspires others to think more this way. It's something I've had plans for, for some time as well. Again changing our definition of success from one where 'stars' are celebrated and more into one where being able to participate in the cultural dialogue is key (I know very socialist! ;)

RNSM-Thank you are the best!

Opening Thursday, May 28 5:30 -7pm

Julie Saul Gallery
535 West 22 Street
6th Floor
New York, NY 10011
Phone: 212 627-2410
A review of the show here:


Tema Stauffer said...

Ruben -as always, great questions.

Brian- you are as articulate and insightful in words as you are in images.

Can't wait to see the show!

Anonymous said...

...."teaching is based on the premise of raising people's consciousness of how we live in the world and we might empower ourselves".

What a great interview, Ruben!

ruben said...

Thanks Tema and Angelo!
I think I am going to do a few more soon. Stay tuned!