Brow Beat

Oh Snap! Sneaky Photos of Zombie Shoppers

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A strange thing happens when people shop. Their faces settle into a trance, eyes glazed, as they focus on finding the perfect fishing rod, pair of heels, or box of condoms.

Although anyone can observe this state by standing in the corner of a store in dark sunglasses, it’s rare to find visual documentation of the phenomenon. This is in part because big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, breeding grounds for shopping hypnosis, generally bar photographers.

Fortunately, photographer Brian Ulrich is not intimidated by rules. After being denied permission to shoot freely in these locations, he simply did it anyway.

The photos above, which are featured in his new book, “Is this Place Great Or What” (and which were also showcased in the “Copia—Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001” exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art), were taken covertly in major franchises. He’d enter a store as if he were just another shopper and plant himself in one spot with his camera at waist level. Then he’d wait for a great shopping moment. Though his handheld camera was in full view, shoppers rarely noticed it. It was if he were invisible, he says.

Would his subjects mind if they knew their retail excursions had become art? We can’t know, but while many of Ulrich’s photos are funny, they are not cruel.

“I try to be respectful. I’m not trying to make fun of people,” he says, adding that he hopes his subjects would understand why it was impossible for him to work any other way. The photos must be candid. That’s the only way to capture what he calls the “true experience of these places” that are so careful about controlling their image.

After several years of surreptitious documentation, Ulrich was ready for a more open setting. He found it in thrift stores, which have fewer restrictions, he says. Although he started out photographing all comers, ultimately he found that he was less interested in thrift store shoppers than in the people who work there, sorting through the castaways of the privileged.

“I think of those people as noble characters,” he explains. This view comes through clearly in these more formalized portraits. Even amid Britney Spears posters and musty purses, there’s something elegantly heroic about these salvagers.

The final stage of what turned out to be a 10-year project for Ulrich was dark stores. These are retailers that have gone under, killed by the recession or oversized ambitions.

Presented in a sequence, these empty ghost malls look postapocalyptic. Only a stray survivor listening to his walkman emerges from the stairwell of once-thriving mall.

No matter how much you dislike chain stores, there’s something tragic about these photos. It’s hard not to wish that a handful of friendly shopping zombies will enter the frame, reanimating failed consumer dreams.