This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
“You’re a dumbass!”
– Man in a truck, to the artist.
The thing you’re looking at no longer exists.
Of course, intrinsic to photography is a material deviation which creates an illusion of a moment of time hewn off from our daily experiences for the purposes of contemplation, nostalgia, commercial gain, etc. There is the sense that once light has bounced off a thing, betraying its form and color, and becomes fixed to a digital file or film, the subject is already different than when it was photographed, and only diverges further from there. People age. Cities change. Electrons move around. Any photograph’s subject is a thing which no longer really exists, at least in the sense it once did. Yet we have a sort of faith which bridges the gap backwards. There is a faith in photography and faith in the thing. The shopping cart corral doesn’t exist, and yet it does.
But I mean, literally, this shopping cart corral doesn’t exist anymore. Or it’s buried under a pile at a landfill. At the very least, the parking lot and the corral and all the trees and curbs have been torn up and replaced with a new version of the same. Fresh, and made new. To get to the beginning, we start at the end. Let the reader understand.
I didn’t know when this parking lot or its corral would meet their end when I began photographing. I would’ve known in an abstract sense that the corral must end at some point when I began, but its end was not truly in my mind when I started. But that calls to mind the most obvious question you’re probably thinking. Let’s get it out of the way first: why photograph such a transparently banal space so many times? I won’t hide behind “because I wanted to”, though that’s certainly true.
I love endurance photography. I love any photography where the strain of an undertaking almost becomes imbued in the images, whether through an acknowledgment of the construct under which they were made, or in the content of the images themselves. John Divola’s As Far As I Could Get is one example of this. The photographer runs away from a self-timer-triggered camera on a tripod as fast as he can, as far as he could get. I was eager for many years to make a series of images with strained repetition and persistent looking. Constraining myself to photographing a single thing a hundred times or more was a project I always wanted to undertake.
I set out one day to start this work, looking for somewhere where I could practically, in public, spend several hours without being bothered. I wanted an object I had access to on all sides, and preferably one with a bit transparency, at a human scale. I wanted to be above and below it, look through it, move all around it. After many hours of looking, I found an empty parking lot in front of a vacant store in Midlothian, Virginia. There was a small shopping cart corral in one end of the parking lot. I barely spotted it from the adjacent six lane road. I had a hunch that I had found my subject.
That hunch bore out over about two months and 840 photographs, but I was willing to be wrong. The fact that it was 840, of all numbers, and a shopping cart corral, of all things, gained enough significance over the following weeks. I will address both in later essays. The associations snowballed to the point of meriting sustained thought and inquiry beyond the act of being in the space and making the photos. This book, and the show that is serves as a complement to (rather than an exact catalog of) are results of that inquiry. What are some other threads that carried the project along?
There is some generational itch in the U.S. landscape photographer, I think, to photograph the built environment, especially the repetitive landscapes of suburban retail. More attention is given to this topic in essay #2. However, it is worth mentioning here first because I sat in the shadow of it for the entire project, and it may be the most on-the-nose visual reference: the abandoned box store, and the empty shopping cart corral. Yes, I will deflate the suspense right now- you can scour all 840 photographs and (to my knowledge, unless it’s in the distant background) you will never see a shopping cart in these photos.
Brian Ulrich has produced several bodies of fine photographic work drawing out the tension between the elements that seem to be both alive and dead in the drumbeat of consumerist culture of the United States. In “The Centurion” he examines the mythmaking of what he calls the new gilded age in the United States. He photographs the rich. He documents new American castles and the dizzying colors of the highest-end fashion stores. The lush spaces and portraits of those that are (or yearn to be) youthful allude to the straining towards enduring life through consumption.
Also within his oeuvre is the series
“Dark Stores, Ghostboxes, and Dead
Malls”. He renders the vacant, for
lease, or utterly dilapidated malls
and retail spaces in a rich and detailed manner, creating aesthetically lavish photographs. The photos are
tinged with the nostalgic touches of design which are ten, twenty, or thirty years out of vogue. The photos touch the voyeuristic pleasure nerve often
aroused when looking at abandoned spaces. Yet they also pull back the
mask of how quickly the thin
architecture and glitzy design dies and is transparently dead once the customers go out from it. The spaces rapidly decay, the ornamentation that once gave the space an ersatz life is now a relic after hardly any time has passed.
His photographs, and the photographs of many others that have worked with the failed promises of prosperity in the 90s and early 2000s were in the forefront of my mind as I worked. The glamour drizzled over spaces, decor, and clothing in order to sell comfort, luxury, and style to Americans is a well critiqued concept in American art. Ulrich’s work, however, I think gets closer to one of my interests: how does ideology become manifested in constructed spaces? How do human ideologies echo and reverberate off of a natural world? Does the natural world exist only as a mute raw material, or does it speak its own text?
When thinking about the title of this essay, I reached for a phrase which felt intuitive- a marketplace of ideas. I was reacting to the literal marketplace that was in front of me as I worked, and scratching at that idea of how ideas become enshrined in the spaces we build and live in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the phrase is actually a wedding of free market ideologies and the freedom of speech. These ideas were birthed in the early years of the enlightenment and reached their early adolescence in the American Revolution, especially through the thinking and writing of Thomas Jefferson.
The concept grew up in American law and came to mean that ideas ought to be able to compete on an equal basis, as if ideas and beliefs were bought and sold on an open market. Applying the same capitalistic “take it or leave it” principle that allowed certain goods to either thrive or languish, it was assumed that as long as people were free to make their own decisions about ideas, then better and better ideas would be reached over time. The decision was nascent in a ruling on an espionage act in the early 1900s, was clarified in a case regarding advertising and traditional media in the 50s, and the jurisprudence has been carried forward into such decisions as Citizens United vs. FEC, the infamous ruling granting corporations extreme leeway on advertising in elections.
In the United States, companies have become extremely adept at creating convincing arguments, compelling products, and enticing advertisements which vie for the wealth of American citizens in exchange for an immense amount of comfort and ease. It is easy to see this as existing solely within the realm of commerce, yet at the same time, it may be overlooked that these companies are making arguments for our minds and hearts, and with them, our beliefs.
In the wake of COVID-19, I don’t know if empty public spaces land in quite the same way that they did when Brian Ulrich was photographing in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s. When the old spaces were just replaced with newer, shinier, and slightly different spaces, an unlimited future is assumed in the transaction. Today, in 2021 spectacle of public spaces devoid of all human life in an apocalyptic manner seems to have been confined to only the earliest months of the pandemic. We have slowly begun to shuffle back to public spaces and crept back into that long desired time when things get “back to normal”. However, I think the disruption has been sufficient for us to really pause and reflect on the spaces we inhabit, and the ideologies they spring out of.
When I photographed this corral, however, I felt a different kind of isolation. When I set out to find a place where I wouldn’t be disturbed, I had no idea how successful I would be. In fact, with 15 trips to the corral and dozens of hours moving within the parking lot and a few adventurous trips across the roads, no one ever talked to me or asked me what I was doing. Sometimes cars would cut through the front of the lot. Sometimes cars would loop
around inside the lot to do an easy U turn. Once, someone stopped about thirty feet from the corral, pointed at it (and me), but was perhaps looking at their phone and not at me. Once, a young couple strolled past me while I was on the ground underneath the
corral and oblivious because of my earbuds. They passed the strange man doing a strange thing.
It was to my relief- I wasn’t eager to try to explain my project to a stranger. Yet, when I’m photographing in public, I almost always get at least one comment. I remember a time I was photographing birds by the river with a long telephoto lens, and a man in a truck asked, “how much did you spend on that?” I said “oh, you know, a couple thousand” (I hate this question!) and got a novel response: “You’re a dumbass!”
Other conversations are more mundane or friendly, though. And others still are tinged with the paranoia and hackles-up response that can only come with the knowledge (even subconsciously) that photographs wield power. Especially those taken by bearded men who make suspicious movements on private property. Like I was apparently doing, confronted by three sheriff’s officer squad cars when walking on a public road on the back side of an airport with a camera. They had gotten a call about a suspicious man, but they were nice enough about it. One officer even asked me what kind of camera I was using, and mentioned he liked photographing birds. So do I.
Yet even when using the same long telephoto lens I was called a dumbass for having, and photographing from across the road opposite the corral, no one spoke to me. And those were photographs I was truly nervous to make, worried that I would have to have a similar conversation with new police officers, confronting me on behalf of a concerned citizen in their car, safe and distant from me, yet worrying I was photographing them on their commute home, or on a trip to Wegman’s.
My working theory is that my irregular trips to the corral in this utterly mundane space rendered me functionally invisible. It was a new and liberating stance from which to photograph. The solitude found when photographing this non-space, surrounded by people, was almost like the desolation I’ve experienced in forests without a single person for miles. And, at the corral when that privacy was disrupted, there was an uncanny feeling, almost like the fear I’ve felt when alone in the middle of nowhere when another traveler crosses my path unexpectedly. My solitude is broken by another, perhaps reaching out for me personally, with unknown intentions.
What did I bring back from the solitude, from the non-space? I’m afraid that if this was just an exercise in self-expression or art for my own sake, I will have wasted my time and the time spent away from my family.
When I was younger, I would spend a lot of time on the internet, wandering around to esoteric corners to find anonymous and fascinating deep dives into things I had never thought to consider, feeling something between wonder and dread. I came up for air in the early social media of 2007, seeing what my friends had posted on their Facebook walls and building imaginary pictures of them. I listened to proto podcasts as early as 2006 and formed my tastes after the opinions of people I never had or never would meet. In 2020 when I began this work, and now into 2021, we have experienced much of what it is like to wander off into the disembodied, speculative, anonymous, and deeply digital. However, having grown up with that space now for 15 years, I fear that there is less wonder there and more paranoia, hatred, fear, and skepticism.
If American culture truly is a marketplace of ideas, it seems hard to argue that social media is the superstore of the 21st century. Except the store comes to us, neatly crafted and slickly packaged with the things it knows we already want to buy.
The internet is not an intrinsically debased place. There is not only untrustworthy, unverifiable, insanity on the internet. But I believe that it has accelerated that gut feeling everyone has that there is sight, and there is seeing. There is knowledge, and there is wisdom. There is information, and there is truth. We are removed from a material reality which can scream or whisper a wonderful order. We look only at snippets on social media, disembodied Discord friendships, fleeting FaceTime family chat, and panic-mongering tirades on Twitter and have gorged ourselves on it in place of real communities, long before Covid. There is a tilt towards foolishness in the pursuit of wisdom.
Unfortunately, we can hardly blame the internet alone, as easy as it feels.
The shopping cart corral is not revelation. The solution is not merely “going outside”. Yet, when we think of ourselves shopping at a marketplace of ideas, we end up believing ourselves to be the final arbiter and consumer of truth, picking up and placing one or another discrete belief into our cart, and ignoring those beliefs over there. We might go in and out of this store for sixty years, seventy years, a hundred years. Maybe you only visit the store when things get rough. Maybe you leave the store with a cornucopia of beliefs, packing your car full and abandoning the cart in the lot after exhausting yourself loading the car, trying to ignore the corral.
The problem is that the belief that all beliefs are equal in a marketplace of ideas is a belief in and of itself. The sense that we can objectively evaluate any belief — religious, economic, social, scientific — and make a rational and reasoned determination is a statement of faith first in ourselves. It appeals to a structured, ordered, and knowable universe, but it still presupposes that we can make judgments among equal and competing viewpoints, and that we are the only (or main) meaningful audience for truth.
We may think ourselves as shoppers at a marketplace of ideas, when in reality, are beliefs are already with us. Our beliefs may wreck us or save us. Our beliefs may be backwards and abhorrent to others and agreeable to the people we love. Our beliefs seem to consistently get us into wars. We believe first and rationalize second.
There is not a literal marketplace of ideas, with rational and detached shoppers weighing between the latest theories in Sociology as they would weigh between the newest flavors of Cheerios. There was, however, a shopping cart corral in Midlothian, Virginia. I didn’t put it there, but I photographed it. I didn’t take it away, but now it’s not there anymore. And even though that cart corral is gone like we will all someday be gone, there is still an intensely beautiful world all around it.