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A Portrait Of A Bankrupt City

My latest for Vantage:

When Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it was the largest city in US history to do so. Kirk Crippens has spent the past three years photographing its residents.

It seems unlikely Kirk Crippens’ portraits are really going to affect the lives of the residents of Stockton, California. It is their portraits that make up his series Bank Rupture. Rather, it will be food banks, loan relief, and Stockton’s fiscal restructuring that will deliver much more direct — negative and positive — effects.

Grand statements and big claims aren’t Crippens’ style. Modest and curious, Crippens uses image-making to investigate and connect with the world. He photographs to establish relationships beyond his immediate working and daily experience. It might sound trite, but Crippens employs photography to show he cares. Having interviewed Crippens numerous times I’m confident in the claim.

“I served as witness. I immersed myself for a time and took some photographs along the way,” says Crippens.

Read the full piece and see a larger selection of images larger.

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THE PREAMBLE

As some of you might be aware, I recently moved down the west coast from Portland to San Francisco. Just as I focused on local artists back then, so too I’ll be peppering Prison Photography with features of local Bay Area photographers.

Kirk Crippens is a long time friend. I saw his latest show on opening night and I thought it was responsible and heartfelt. I have never been to Bayview Hunters Point which is the focus of Crippens’ series The Point. I am curious but as with many of the outlying SF neighbourhoods, I’ve never had a reason arise to visit. Which says a lot in itself of boundaries within even the same city. Bayview is home to one of my favourite newspapers. The SF Bayview reports on prison issues when virtually no one else is seeing the abuses occurring in our prison system. That’s an aside; on to the article proper

THE POINT

While reflecting on the African-American community of San Francisco, James Baldwin once said, “This is the San Francisco that Americans pretend does not exist.” The Bayview-Hunters Point district is a predominantly Black neighbourhood and, for years, has been isolated from the rest of the city and cited as a significant example of urban marginalization.

While other photography projects focus on the tougher, negative aspects of Bayview-Hunters Point, photographer Kirk Crippens took a slower and more reflexive approach to his interactions with a neighbourhood he admittedly knew next-to-nothing about prior to working on The Point which is a collection of portraits and interior domestic scenes.

The Point is currently on show at San Francisco City Hall. It includes not only dozens of portraits and interior shots made by Crippens but also family photographs to those in his portraits. It’s a lovely balance and a special production for this exhibition The Point: Kirk Crippens in collaboration with the Bayview-Hunters Point Community (Nov 15th – Feb 27th, 2015).

The Point celebrates the generations who have called Bayview home — “the kings and queens of Bayview-Hunters Point” as Crippens describes them.

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THE BEGINNINGS

In early 2011, Crippens walked into the Providence Baptist Church, established in Bayview in the early 1940s. The congregation welcomed him, shook his hand, remembered his name. Crippens described his task of photographing the community to the pastor. Subsequently, meetings were set up with respected individuals of the community who worked with Crippens to realise a shared vision.

“At a time when San Francisco continues to grapple with the distressing trend of the out-migration of the African-American community, it’s more important than ever that we bring this exhibit to City Hall,” says Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Director of Cultural Affairs.

THE CONTEXT

Located at the southeastern corner of San Francisco, the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood was considered to be one of the last remaining San Francisco neighborhood left untouched by developers. However, with the completion of the Muni Metro T Third Street line in 2007, the first new light-rail line in San Francisco in more than half a century, and other plans on the horizon, Bayview-Hunters Point has recently become a focal point for recent redevelopment projects.

“Gentrification” is the word on everyone’s lips.

I wanted to find out a bit more, so I asked Kirk a few questions.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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THE QUESTIONS

Prison Photography (PP): What did you know of Bayview-Hunters Point before photographing?

Kirk Crippens (KC): Not much. Not until late 2010, when an email invitation to work on a project in the community arrived. I had an intuition I should accept the project. I began exploring the neighborhood, but my first photographs reflected my perspective of an outsider. I was wandering the perimeter of a community.

PP: What do you know now?

KC: I know ways to connect with a community. I needed to connect in a significant way in order for the project to assume some power and relevance. In early 2011, I walked into Providence Baptist Church. My life changed that Sunday morning; the Church became the lens through which I learned about and connected with the community.

I know about the beauty and solidity of the multi-generational bonds that run through the neighborhood.

Bayview-Hunters Point is the focus of redevelopment projects. The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a superfund site requiring years of radioactive pollution cleanup, is being targeted for 10,500 new homes and close to 4 million square feet of commercial and retail space. The Point is on its way to becoming another coveted San Francisco zip code. While the African-American community watches its neighborhood transform, gentrification threatens to undermine its way of life. Displacement is underway in this historic African-American district.

PP: The church was your entry point into the community. Do you think the people and homes that access point provided allowed you to make a representative portrait of the neighborhood?

KC: It would be hard for someone to make a representative portrait of any neighborhood, so I’ll answer no. What I have done is reflect a vibrant segment of the community. Is it representative, probably not? Is it significant, yes — this aspect of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood is not often celebrated or recognized.

Other photography projects focus on the gritty, troubled aspects that come from oppression and economic struggle, The Point is a collaboration with the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

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PP: How has the work been received in San Francisco?

KC: I’m honored to say well. The exhibition opened at RayKo Gallery in September and was immediately booked by the San Francisco Arts Commission for a 3-and-a-half month exhibition at San Francisco City Hall.

PP: Your current exhibit at San Francisco City Hall features (beautifully framed) family pictures form the albums of the folks in your formal portraits. Why did you decide to pair the two types of image?

KC: A desire to connect further with the community. The director of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, Meg Shiffler and I had a meeting to discuss ways to enlarge the exhibition. We took inspiration from a previous exhibition at the SF Library that featured family photographs from Bayview. We then asked my friends and contacts if they had historic and family photos for the exhibition.

We were overwhelmed by the generosity and interest that came from the community. In the end we added 60+ historic and family photos and interspersed them with large 36 pieces from my work. It changed the project into a collaboration.

PP: Change is afoot in Bayview Hunters Point, as it is in all of San Francisco. What do you think the future has in store for the community there?

KC: The future of The Point is being created during these transformative years of redevelopment. I suspect the community will look quite different in 20-30 years, and not all for the best. I don’t want to speculate on what will or might be, and I certainly don’t want the friends and adopted family I’ve found in Bayview to see their community displaced, but I see mighty changes underway and everyone is bracing for them.

PP: Thanks, Kirk.

KC: Thank you, Pete.

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KIRK CRIPPENS

Kirk Crippens is an American artist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He had an early start with photography, inspired by his grandfather who kept a darkroom in his closet. Based in San Francisco since 2000, he began exhibiting in 2008. He was named a Top 50 Photographer in Critical Mass in 2010 and 2011, nominated for the Eureka Fellowship Program, invited to speak during PhotoAlliance’s Spring Lecture series at the San Francisco Art Institute, and was a finalist for Photolucida’s book prize.

Crippens has been an artist-in-residence at both RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco and Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon. His portfolio Foreclosure, USA was recently acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas and can be seen in their current exhibition State of the Art, Discovering American Art Now.

He currently serves on an arts board in Bayview Hunters Point. Providence Baptist Church has become his home away from home.

Kirk Crippens contacted me a few months back to tell me about his work at San Quentin. He’s working on a documentary on the SQ Insight Garden Project.

He’s also working on Hidden Population, a personal project of unorthodox portraiture.

I suspect for Crippens, the ‘back of the head approach’ is a novel workaround of DoC legal restrictions on identifiable depictions of men in its custody. As applied to a US prison population, Crippens’ work is original and rather beguiling; how many of his subjects are aware of the camera’s glare? Does the notion of victimhood surface here? How often does the bowed head recur? It is very difficult to imply penitence in prison portraiture without relying on cliche. The doo-rags, beanie-hats, neck hair, peeping tattoos and ubiquitous blue cotton mean these images fluctuate between personal and abstract.

For such a simple idea, Crippens could go a long way with it. It is still a work in progress so I just want to bring your attention to it right now. Hopefully, I’ll get Kirk on PP soon to discuss it at length.

BACKS OF HEADS

To compose images of the back of the subjects’ heads is the same approach adopted by Eric de Vries for ‘Invisible Scars’ – portraits of the Khmer Rouge labour camps, Cambodia. In terms of political context, the two sets of subjects are constellations apart , but I thought the shared technique was worth noting.

CRIPPENS

In 2010, Kirk Crippens achieved significant success with Foreclosure, USA. He had three solo exhibitions of his and nine group shows throughout 2010. Crippens was named in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50 for 2010. Foreclosure, USA also won the Blue Earth Prize For Best Project Photography at the PhotoAlliance 2010 Our World Portfolio Review. Crippens was recently nominated for the 2011 – 2013 Eureka Fellowship Program, a project of the Fleishhacker Foundation.

Green jobs fair at San Quentin State Prison. Courtesy of Kirk Crippens.

KALW Informant, a great quality news-site on criminal justice in the San Francisco Bay Area is asking the tough questions – The state could release 40,000 inmates soon. Where will they work? (Rina Palta, November 19, 2010) Palta has answers for readers too. The green economy.

I talked about the common sense behind green jobs for paroled and released prisoners in December 2008. Van Jones (yup, the guy hounded out of the Obama administration by the right-wing media crying Commie) posited before the nation’s economy tanked that social justice and environmental justice had common solutions. He was and remains right.

Palta highlights the mutual benefit for the tens of thousands of released prisoners and the State of California in a progressive, state-sponsored jobs programs and the expansion of the renewable energy industry. San Quentin Prison held a ‘Green Jobs Fair’ in August 2010.

Unfortunately, getting support for govt. stimulus is, these days, difficult politically; taxpayers may balk at the idea of putting taxpayer dollars toward work for felons.

However, unexpected or unpalatable for some CA residents, it would be wise to support former prisoners. It’ll save communities and save future DoC costs. California may be about to release 40,000 inmates based on a 2009 federal judicial ruling (the State of California has taken the case to the Supreme Court for appeal). That’s a lot of working age men with gaps in their skills and working histories. Train them.

EMAIL

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