After the attacks of 9/11, President Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping, equating consumerism with patriotism. Brian Ulrich’s Copia was a response to that advice, “a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live. Through large-scale photographs taken within both the big-box retail stores and the thrift shops that house our recycled goods, Copia explores not only the everyday activities of shopping, but the economic, cultural, political and social implications of commercialism and the roles we play in over-consumption and as targets of advertising.” Copia unfolds in three acts, each representing a facet of American financial life. Retail focuses on the middle class, Thrift examines the secondary life cycle of consumer goods, and Dark Stores reveal the results of the recession.
RH: What is Copia’s connection to Robert Frank’s The Americans?
BU: One of the great themes of Frank’s book is the manufacturing of desire in American culture. This desire is directly connected to capitalism, it becomes a cultural identity so entrenched so that any threat to it is regarded as catastrophe. This is the umbrella cloud that Frank is photographing in. I was curious what is different, what remains the same and how this defines who we are now.
Within the war speak of 2001 and 2002 there was a notion that we could protect our economy by shopping. It became clear how this idea of the American consumer having the capital and leisure time to spend on things was connected to our economic and psychological well being, which goes back to Frank.
I had at one point a copy of The Americans that I used as a sketchbook. I made specific correlations and taped in my own pictures over his to see if there were relationships between content and concept that would match my pictures. It was an interesting exercise and helped expand what the work could be.