Kaid Benfield Archive


Dark Stores: Brian Ulrich's haunting photos of a suburbia that was

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 18, 2009 at 1:24PM

, , , , , ,

     Linens 'n Things, Skokie IL (courtesy of Brian Ulrich)

I was introduced to Brian Ulrich's haunting photos of dead malls and big-box stores by a slide show in the current issue of Time.  As Bryan Walsh's story "Recycling the Suburbs" (one of "10 ideas for changing the world right now"), in the same issue, says:

"The American suburb as we know it is dying. The implosion began with the housing bust, which started in and has hit hardest the once vibrant neighborhoods outside the urban core. Shopping malls and big-box retail stores, the commercial anchors of the suburbs, are going dark - an estimated 148,000 stores closed last year, the most since 2001."

I was quoted in that story to the effect that we need to direct our new development to places that already have infrastructure.  I was way impressed with Brian Ulrich's photographs and got in touch; and he has been kind enough to allow me to share some of them with you.

Before Dark Stores (heh - I almost typed "Dark Star," channeling Jerry Garcia), Brian examined the consumerist society that led to those big boxes and malls in his collection Copia, which has received a fair amount of press.  This big box is (or was) in Granger, Indiana:

     Granger, IN (courtesy of Brian Ulrich) 

Brian describes his intention for Copia:

"In 2001 citizens were encouraged to take to the malls to boost the U.S. economy through shopping, thereby equating consumerism with patriotism. The Copia project, a direct response to that advice, is a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live . . . 

"Since we ultimately see ourselves in these images, I aim to elicit compassion and empathy for those depicted by creating formal images that are elegant and beautiful . . . The large-scale prints allow the viewer to stop and notice with a distanced perspective familiar places and things."

Most of Brian's shots are taken in the Midwest (he lives in Chicago).  This one shows the back room of a thrift store, filled with new-looking sneakers that apparently never sold in their original store(s):

     untitled (courtesy of Brian Ulrich) 

Here are two more from Dark Stores, depicting Saginaw, Michigan, and Deerfield, Illinois, respectively:

     Office Depot, Saginaw, MI (courtesy of Brian Ulrich) 

     Deerbrook Mall, Deerfield, IL (courtesy of Brian Ulrich)

I've written before about declining suburbs and empty boxes, of course.  The trend was there even before the economy went in the tank, since for decades retailers have abandoned one location after another in search of greener pastures, quite literally in many cases.  But the collapse of the economy is now delivering a crushing blow.  Obviously, the model doesn't work, at least not for long.  As Ellen Dunham-Jones and I said in the Time story, there is hope, but only if we do things differently.   

Time has a companion story on refashioning interstate highways to accommodate rail (quoting my friend Shelley Poticha). 

Visit Brian Ulrich's website or the Dark Stores slideshow for more great photos and information.