How to Start a Project: Brian Ulrich

© Brian Ulrich, Marshall Fields, 2009

Two years ago, I asked a handful of friends in the photography world if they had advice about starting projects for my students. I continue to present their responses to students each semester.

Under that idea that their responses might be of interest to others, I will be publishing some of the responses I received then as well as soliciting new responses to post a total of a dozen replies from photographers to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?"

The series has featured replies from Judith Joy RossIrina RozovskyAlejandro CartagenaPhil ToledanoSteven AhlgrenSusan LipperAmani WillettLisa KeresziEirik Johnson and Richard Renaldi.

Today we continue with a contribution from Brian Ulrich.

Ulrich was born in 1971 in Northport, NY. His photographs portraying contemporary consumer culture reside in major museum collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Since finishing his graduate studies in 2004, Ulrich has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; the Julie Saul Gallery; the Robert Koch Gallery as well as a traveling exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art with major support from Fred and Laura Bidwell, which travels to the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Haggerty Museum of Art. His work has also been included in many group exhibitions such as the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Photography; Galerie f5.6 in Munich; the Krannert Art Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center; and the Carnegie Museum; among others.

The Aperture Foundation and the Cleveland Museum of Art collaborated to publish his first major monograph, "Is This Place Great or What," accompanied by the traveling exhibition in 2011. Aperture also published his work as part of the MP3: Midwest Photographers Project in 2006. Ulrich was named one of the years 30 Emerging Photographers by Photo District News magazine, and a critic's pick by ARTnews magazine. He was awarded a 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.

His work has been recently featured in The New York Times Magazine; Time Magazine; on National Public Radio programs; Orion Magazine; Vice Magazine; Mother Jones magazine; the Chicago Tribune; Artforum; Harper's; Leica World; Yvi Magazine and as a frequent contributor to the like-minded magazine Adbusters. Brian’s work has been featured alongside writings by noted academics, environmentalists and activists such as: Bill McKibben (Mother Jones, 2007), Michael Pollan (NY Times Magazine, 2007), Jeff Madrick (Le Monde, 2008), Kalle Lasn (Adbusters, 2006) and Jeffrey Kaplan (Orion Magazine, 2008).

Ulrich is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Most will have you believe that good ideas come from divine inspirations (rarely, but there is the light), or extraordinary gifted creatives. Suffice it to say, in my own experience ideas for projects come from a combination of improvisation and practice.

I liken this predicament to musicians. For many years I played the bass and guitar in bands, what began as a post-punk soul searching endeavor slowly evolved over the years to sonic experimentation and improvisation. I began to study many forms and styles of music and sought out local jazz musicians who had inclinations towards improvising.

One evening at a local venue in Cleveland, Ohio called Speak in Tongues, I saw a solo performance by a local percussionist named Leland Scott Davis. Davis, over 45 minutes, created a controlled cacophony of drums, symbols, penny whistles, toy horns, droning and chanting, from harmony to dissonance and back. He was equally as compelling in a 5-piece band, or whatever group of gifted musicians he came across to play a handful of gigs. It occurred to me that this young man had put so many hours into improvising, that he did not have to think, that he could sit in with likely any musician and transform even the most mundane into something profound.

A year or so later, I left Cleveland for graduate school in Chicago. The beginning of the first semester coincided with the tragic events of September 2001. It was no epiphany to react to that event as a project, but I knew enough to turn my focus from the personal to the social. As I walked, observed, listened and attempted to make photographs in those few months, I came to understand my musicianship had given me a sensitivity to my surroundings. Improvising with the camera was equal parts on the fly and the result of years of practice. By working, paying attention and evaluating all at once I was more likely to produce something meaningful. That fall it became clear that all this was pointing me towards the shopping malls.

At the beginning of most of my projects, I almost resisted starting them. Retail was so problematic in terms of practicality; Thrift seemed like such a complex way to discuss poverty; the Dark Stores and Dead Malls required a rigor and approach to landscape that was very new to me. With each new project, however, I knew I had come across something that was indicative of bigger social, political and culture issues of the time and simply no one else was going to do it. Once I made a decision to take on that responsibility and see it through, the projects really began.

My advice to students is to work a lot and enjoy working. After a time the project will pick you. Work is also not just using the camera but researching, reading, asking questions, critiquing, etc. Practice. Improvisation. Evaluation. We call it work because it is not easy and doesn’t necessarily get easier. The reward of this is the many small and big discoveries that are outside of what one knows and what one would know by just thinking about it all. I am still amazed by how focus and fidelity can function; I still marvel when I discover something out in the world entirely indicative of the multi-layered moment we live in; at how psyches and expressions change over time. At times I see like the view camera sees. There are lenses and lives. Bad days don’t mean bad pictures and vice versa - just keep going.