Kirk Crippens: The Grit in the Oyster

© Kirk Crippens ‘Dorris Vincent’ [detail] 2013 from the series ‘The Point’

I wanted to avoid simply making photographs that reflected my perspective as an outsider wandering the margins of a community.


According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend by far the highest proportion of their income on housing, often pushing at the very limits of what is financially viable for their domestic budget. Eighty per cent of American homes are detached, free-standing buildings. The domestic is a form of territory, but these individual domestic domains together form larger communities. Given the country’s history of colonisation and immigration, such communities are of many styles and ethnicities, but frequently they are, within themselves, relatively homogeneous. However, as populations rise and cities grow, neighbourhoods disintegrate and reform as those with more money move in and those with less are forced out.

In the imagination, home is a stable centre, a haven. The reality is not always so dependable. Change is disruptive and, when it is forced upon us, can prove particularly challenging to deal with. Simply moving to a new house is considered by psychologists to be one of the top five most emotionally stressful life events, on a par with divorce. It tests our resilience, but perhaps it also sets our experience of life in sharper perspective. Under pressure, we learn more about people (and ourselves) than we do when everything is running smoothly. For the American photographer, Kirk Crippens, it is these tensions between stability and precarity that provide a context for his insightful image-making.

Alasdair Foster

© Kirk Crippens ‘Ms. Vincent’s Dining Room’ 2012 from the series ‘The Point’


Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?

Kirk: I was a child. My grandfather had been a photographer in the military and he had built a darkroom at home in his closet. I remember the first time I was allowed inside; the red glow of the safelight seemed magical. When I got my first summer job and saved up enough money, I bought a 35mm camera.

How did the project ‘The Point’ begin?

I was invited to collaborate on the project by another photographer who later dropped out. The Bayview–Hunters Point district of San Francisco is a traditional African-American neighbourhood. For many years it has been isolated from the rest of the city and was considered a significant example of urban marginalization. However, with a new light rail being constructed that will connect the suburb to the city centre, Bayview–Hunters Point is rapidly becoming a highly desirable San Francisco zip code. As major redevelopment projects get underway, the African-American community is seeing its neighbourhood transformed and gentrified in ways that threaten to undermine its established community life. 

© Kirk Crippens ‘Sphinx’ 2012 from the series ‘The Point’

You have spoken about the importance you place on authenticity in making images. What do you mean by this?

This was a particularly important question to address when working on The Point. When I travel to communities outside of my own to make photographs, it’s important to me to connect with, listen to, and learn from the people living in that community. In turn, they guide the path I take and, in many ways, the photographs I create. I wanted to avoid simply making photographs that reflected my perspective as an outsider wandering the margins of a community.

I wanted to become part of the community; to I collaborate with the people who had grown up in the neighbourhood and made The Point their community… to establish relationships and friendships, to be invited into homes and integrated into lives.

I believed this was the best way to reflect something that then honours the people and the community.

How did you develop the kind of connection and trust that allowed you to achieve this level of authenticity?

I grew up in Texas and my family went to church every Sunday morning. I decide to visit one of the many churches in the neighbourhood as a way of connecting with the community. In early 2011, I walked into Providence Baptist Church in the heart of Bayview–Hunters Point. My life changed that Sunday morning; I was ‘adopted’ by the black congregation of Providence. The Church became the lens through which I learned about, and connected with, the whole community. I attended the church as a visitor for a year and then joined the congregation. That was seven years ago, and I have been attending that church ever since, long after the photographic project was completed.

Can you describe the process of how you went about making one of the portraits?

Ms. Dorris Vincent and I met at her home for a portrait session. She was wearing a beautiful dress and a hat. After I took her portrait she allowed me to wander around her house to see if there were any interior photographs I wanted to take. When I came back, her daughter was sitting with her and they were talking. I set up my tripod and began taking candid portraits from across the room, framing Ms. Vincent within her domestic environment. Toward the end of the conversation, Ms. Vincent was sitting in this thoughtful posture, with her hat in her lap. Of course, I had to ask her if she would mind the image being used, because the tops of her stockings were showing. She kindly granted me permission.

In ‘The Point’ you mix portraits and domestic environments. In the series ‘Mary Elizabeth Moves’ you focus specifically on the furnishings to build a picture of a personal domestic space. First, who is Mary Elizabeth and why is she moving to a new house?

I wanted to create a project about aging and mentioned this idea to a co-worker. She then introduced me to her boyfriend’s grandmother, Mary Elizabeth. Already in her nineties, she was in the process of moving into an assisted-living facility, leaving behind the only home she had known for many decades.

What led you to focus on the details of domestic décor in this series rather than the person herself?

This was not intended as a personal story about Mary Elizabeth. I wanted to think about the inevitable decisions and changes everyone goes through in old age. One big question many people worry about is where to live when their health deteriorates? In my photographs, I was contrasting the extensive home, lived in for decades, decorated from top to bottom, with the sterile confines of an assisted-living apartment that has no personal history.

Mary Elizabeth allowed me to wander around her home and take photographs while she was busy preparing for the move. When I reached the attic, I found a closet in which hung a mint green bag. Unzipping it, I discovered a fox-fur stole staring back at me. I pulled the stole out and made the photograph.

Those first two series explore relatively conventional domestic settings and lifestyles. In ‘Portraitlandia’ you engage with more strongly individualistic characters and settings. Where are these images set and who are these people?

‘Portraitlandia’ was made during an artist residency in Portland, in the US state of Oregon. I had a year to prepare, but just one month in which to take the photographs. I wanted to get to know the city so that I could create something that had authenticity. Portland is a city in the USA with a reputation for welcoming people of every type, especially those of the counter culture. I decided to focus on ‘iconic’ Portlanders, asking each person to select a place that was special for them as the location for their portrait. In this way, I hoped that the people I was photographing would introduce me to the city as it really is and ensure the authenticity I was wanting to capture.

How did you go about the shoot?

I was using a 4×5 camera for the first time and wanted to get a feel for what it is like using large format equipment. The photo centre that was hosting my artist residency had scanners, computers and printers. So, I was able to shoot on film and then scan to digital.

But that was the technical side of things. Most of all, I wanted to explore Portland and its people.

How did you decide on the pose and location for each portrait?

The project was a collaboration with the people of Portland and with their city. Each person, each location, each image has a story and they were all made through this collaborative process. I spent as much time as possible talking with each person I was photographing, getting to know them. But I was also wanting to capture the spontaneity and serendipity of things as they unfolded.

As you got to know the individuals in these images, what did you learn about their approach to life and their sense of what ‘home’ might mean to them?

That’s an interesting question. Each person certainly had their own individual approach to life, and that was reflected in their homes. They are happy to be living in Oregon and especially proud to be living in Portland. However, this love of their hometown, this sense of place, comes with a growing tension. A concern about the changes overtaking the city as it expands. Their sense of place is becoming less certain – more in flux – as the growing city changes character… I sensed that this instability is having an impact on Portlanders’ concept of ‘home’.

© Kirk Crippens ‘Neighborhood’ 2009 from the series ‘Foreclosure, USA’

Can you introduce the context for your series ‘Foreclosure, USA’?

I was inspired by the Dust Bowl photographs of the Great Depression. [In the 1930s, the American prairies were hit with a series of droughts that, in combination with poor agricultural management, resulted in the fertile topsoil being blown away in vast dust storms. The subsequent erosion resulted in a period of economic collapse in farming and mass internal migration. A number of photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans documented the dust-bowl phenomenon and its harsh impact on the tenant farmers; images which have since become iconic in the history of twentieth-century USA.]

My project is set in the period following the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States and the subsequent financial crisis [considered by many economists to be the worst since the Great Depressions of the 1930s]. In particular it focuses on the town of Stockton, California, and the houses and housing estates left deserted as lenders foreclose on householders who are unable to keep up the repayments due to the financial crash.

Only a few years earlier, Stockton had seemed to exemplify the vision of the America Dream in its unconstrained sense of possibility and its openness to business. Sadly, it is now better known as one of the towns worst hit by the foreclosure crisis. In the first quarter of 2009, one in every 27 homes in the region received a foreclosure notice, forcing the occupants to leave. This compares with a national rate of about one in 159.

Housing schemes begin as a business venture, but in time become homes and communities. Here the buildings are cast into a limbo: built but uninhabited. How did you go about capturing the spirit of those times in Stockton?

Stockton is located a couple of hours’ drive to the east of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. I began by just driving around the town to get a sense of the place. In that first year, my aim was simple: to photograph the interior of the houses now lying empty due to foreclosure and through these images to tell the story of the economic recession in terms of its impact on family and domestic life.

© Kirk Crippens ‘Bedroom Walls’ 2009 from the series ‘Foreclosure, USA’

But you did not show the people themselves…

No. As with Mary Elizabeth Moves, I was trying to connect with the bigger picture, something we could all relate to. By photographing places and domestic objects, it is perhaps easier to relate to the experience of losing one’s home than if one includes the specific people involved. My hope is that the viewer who sees the brightly painted walls of a child’s bedroom or the angry destruction of a once-loved home, can relate somehow to the personal and domestic sense of loss brought about by the unfolding economic crisis.

Over time, the project turned into something much more than this. In 2012, Stockton became the largest city in US history to that date to declare bankruptcy [the larger city of Detroit did not file for bankruptcy until 2013]. In all, I photographed in Stockton from 2009 to 2014. Over those years I saw the detrimental impact on the town; its sense of pride has still not been recovered.

© Kirk Crippens ‘3-Car Garage’ 2009 from the series ‘Foreclosure, USA’

You have made in-depth series exploring domestic space and community in a diverse range of contexts. How has this experience changed your own sense of what ‘home’ and the ‘domestic’ mean in contemporary America, if indeed they have?

The projects we are discussing have deeply affected me: a woman saying goodbye to her home and moving into an assisted-living apartment; a town of residents free to manifest their alternative lifestyle with impunity; a large American city declaring bankruptcy… In fact, they have come to inform my perspective of the world so deeply that I wouldn’t know where to begin trying to peel back the layers. I will say that, over the years, I have come to cherish home and family, youth and health, and freedom to choose how I live my life. These are not things simply to take for granted.

Do you approach each project as distinct and separate, or do you see your work building to create a larger picture?

I approach each project is as distinct and separate … in theory at least. But the underlying subject is always the same: what I would call ‘grit in the oyster’.  In each case, I find an intersection in our society – when place, people and events are in some kind of dynamic re-negotiation – and then take a look at the situation and its implications. An economic recession, an unusually open-minded town, the changes necessitated by ageing.

I used to say that I wouldn’t be interested in photographing ancient redwood trees, because that’s been done before. But, when I found out that thieves were illegally cutting burlwood from the 3,000-year-old trees, I wanted to photograph the trees, with their scars. This grit, or tension, or intersection … this where my work lives.

What have you learned about yourself through the process of making these photographs?

I learned that life is short, and I should use my energy, every bit I can spare, to do good work. Despite the apparent harshness of the subjects I’m often dealing with, despite all the effort it takes to complete one of these projects, if I am able to focus my energy toward work I believe is good then my experience of life is that it is full of purpose and beauty.

Biographical Notes

Kirk Crippens was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1971. He studied photography at University of Texas and Stanford University. His work has been widely exhibited across the USA and internationally in Belgium, China, Germany, Guatemala, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United Kingdom. His photographs are held in the collections of a number of prestigious museums including Musée de la Photographie, Belgium; Cleveland Institute of Art, Ohio; Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas; and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Collection of Yale University, Connecticut. His work has been published in two monographs: ‘Live Burls’ (Schilt, 2017) and ‘Going South – Big Sur’ (Schilt, 2019). He lives and works in San Francisco.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.