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Everything Must Go

Brian Ulrich is far from the only artist to take American consumerism as his theme, but he may be the one with the best timing.

Everything Must Go

Brian Ulrich is far from the only artist to take American consumerism as his theme, but he may be the one with the best timing.

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It was in 2001 that Ulrich, a photographer based in Chicago, began a wide-ranging exploration of consumer culture, a project called Copia. In the first two phases of the project, “Retail” and “Thrift,” he documented the buying habits of the middle and lower classes, capturing a historic boom in consumption.

At the boom’s height, back in 2005, Ulrich often would drive by a closed-up grocery store near his home. Bounded by a strip of asphalt below and a ribbon of night sky above, it looked, he thought, a bit like a Rothko painting. He took some photos, but didn’t come across many other shuttered stores. At least, not until the epic bust, which he also was on hand to chronicle.

Since May 2008, when he began the third cycle of Copia—“Dark Stores, Ghost Boxes, and Dead Malls”—in earnest, Ulrich has traveled the country, scouting dead and expiring malls, retail strips, and big-box stores with help from publications that cover commercial real estate and websites such as deadmalls.com. A Guggenheim fellowship has allowed him to devote himself wholly to the project: “I can return to spots over and over again,” Ulrich says, citing Randall Park Mall in Cleveland, which he’s photographed four times. Wherever they are, abandoned malls have “a very subtle but dramatic effect” on the surrounding area, he says. “When these malls go down, they drag the whole local economy” down with them.

The photo shows a former Pep Boys store in Columbus, Ohio, photographed in August 2009. Ulrich had spent a long day shooting at a mall down the street; it was 3 a.m. when he stopped here. Inside the lobby, he could see a dead bird. He went in for a close-up, not realizing a motion sensor was still active. “I started to step in, and this alarm went screaming,” Ulrich recalls. “It probably went off for half an hour.” This being a ghost store, though, no one came.