Jeffrey Stockbridge is done making photos in Kensington for now. He actually stopped this winter. That might surprise you, if you’re a fan of his two-year-old haunting if insightful photoblog Kensington Blues.
After five years, he says he has enough material to last more than a year, maybe two, to fit his schedule of one carefully chosen piece to run each week: sometimes a simple portrait, sometimes accompanied by an audio interview or oral history or community artifact.
Stockbridge, 30, started meeting and talking in 2008 with the residents of Kensington Avenue, often women who worked on the corners as prostitutes, but also of parents, children and families and of men plying the drug trade, people who were clean and others who wanted to be.
But he always knew it was a “finite series,” and five years later he has found its end.
“I’ve developed a narrative on the blog about a Kensington way of life,” he said. That narrative will continue on the blog for now, as he spends down the collection of more than 100 photos left he knows he wants to share, unless a publishing relationship prohibits him.
His work will continue to live on in a way that the web is so good at creating, but it’s worth pausing to look at the moment when an artist knows a project has reached its finality. This winter, after months of feeling some of the creative momentum of his best known project waning, Stockbridge made his last photo there.
He went out one chill morning, “brutally cold,” he said. He saw a lady he had come to know and chatted her up. She pointed him in the direction of a crime scene from the night before at Ruth and Venango.
A woman who had been working the corner had been found dead in a trash strewn alleyway. Stockbridge, his hands freezing and camera gears jamming, struggled to make a photo that captured the scene, both harrowing and sadly recurrent. The photos he made that day haven’t appeared yet on the blog but will “when the time is right,” he said.
Across the way he spotted another woman on the corner. She was working.
“I think, ‘I gotta go talk to this lady,” said Stockbridge. “This just happened yesterday and here you are on this corner. How can you stand here?”
“I’m just numb to it,’ she said. How many times had I heard that?” Stockbridge said.
Many times, it turns out. Anyone who has worked or been near poverty, drugs addiction, homelessness, prostitution or the like knows one of the most heartbreaking and predictable common themes is how cyclical it all is.
That’s the last time Stockbridge made photos along the Avenue.
“I could take photos and follow the rise and fall of people in Kensington forever,” Stockbridge said. He’s taken photos of people who were clean and off the streets and ready for the rest of their lives, and then found them back where he first found them weeks later. Finding that woman in the cold hooking, steps away from a crime scene, like long before he ever came and long after was as poignant a close as any.
Some photographers take the same focus for their entire careers. Stockbridge wanted an end.
He found his way shooting in Kensington after meeting Millie, a woman who spent time prostituting to support a drug addiction. During a project he did in early 2008 in abandoned homes in West Philadelphia’s Mantua whilee studying at Drexel, Millie told him about the Kensington she knew, sending him on his first foray there.
By August 2011, he wanted to do something with the work he had been collecting for nearly three years.
“As a photographer, you have this impulse to go out and record things and you don’t always know what to do with it,” Stockbridge said. He had ‘so much data,’ to use his word — photos and journals and oral histories. Part of him wanted to just let the content die but then he felt guilty not doing anything with it.
“You have to remind yourself when you’re making the work, that the reason you do it is to share it,” he said.
To get a sense of his narrative, some examples of his work, which he shares roughly once a week from his archives:
- His first portrait post came Aug. 26, 2011, of Melissa, including an audio interview from late 2008.
- A month later, he introduced his followers to the twins Tic Tac and Tootsie
- In early 2012, we met Mary, who had spent more than 20 years battling addiction.
- When he met her, Tanya had been on the street for less than a month
- Nichol started using and tricking at 19.
- In a particularly moving piece, Stockbridge shared a photo of Edward, who had died, with Edward’s brother Robert.
- Recently, Stockbridge shared a conversation he had with Marion about her relationship with nearby family in the riverwards.
“The skills and materials I need for my business are the same I need to do what I love,” he said, flashing his entrepreneurial sensibility. “I never wanted someone else telling me what to do. I always knew I wanted to work for myself.”
Now he’s working on what’s next for Kensington Blues.
He just held a First Fridays exhibition of his work and has been pulling together a book, navigating the publishing world that is so different than the “freeing lack of permanence” of his blog. There’s a documentary in the works, too, from filmmaker Mo Scarpelli, which Stockbridge expects by the end of the year.
The focus of the doc, which is being put together by the Brooklyn filmmaker, was originally aimed at the people Stockbridge has photographed, but it began to follow him more.
It might make you think of his appearance — bushy beard, trucker hat and flannel on one August morning over coffee at the Reading Terminal Market. He shudders at the thought of it as a costume, considering he’s worn the beard since a series of backpacking trips after graduating college. But it has helped him develop relationships, he said.
That’s when Stockbridge, who is otherwise funny and free-spirited, speaks a bit more carefully. Questions of ownership whenever an artist from another world comes to a struggling one are delicate ones.
“I am conscious of how I look when I go to Kensington,” he said. “It’s not a disguise, but it has a calming factor.”
He smiles then some behind his beard.
“When you’re clean shaven, people call you ‘young boy.’ When you have the full beard, they call you ‘big guy,’ he said. “I want to be big guy.”
‘I’m not a reporter, reporting on these events. It’s this simple: I like meeting strangers,” he said, noting he rarely does anything more than transcribe recorded words. “I want to let people speak for themselves, with good photographs.”
His work is well-respected, as far as those who follow it go — he has collected about 1,500 email subscribers to his blog.
“Stockbridge is honest in his approach. He’s developed long relationships, he’s listened, and he’s sought to dignify without setting these people out as freaks as some photographers have done,” said Nathaniel Popkin, the urbanist and editor of the popular Hidden City Daily web magazine, calling Kensington Blues “brave, smart and necessary.”
Stockbridge will talk about the seeming unstoppable gentrification that has flowed in cities and neighborhoods for generations: poverty and cheap rent have attracted artists and then young professionals from South Street to Old City to Northern Liberties to, now, Kensington.
“It’s not my field of expertise, I’m a photographer, but… when there’s more of a natural progression, when people are moving in and meeting people and adapting to the environment, it’s inevitable and can be good,” he said. “I see young artists moving into Kensington and I see that as a good thing. Do I see a connection between those artists and the people struggling on the Avenue? No. Would a connection be a good thing? Probably.”
Stockbridge lives on a block in South Philly and he’s made sure to learn as many of his neighbor’s names as he can, recognizing the people who were there first. New creative spirit can be an outlet for existing residents but access to those new channels is challenging.
Maybe that’s an outcome for Kensington Blues, to make those communities and challenges better understood and more accessible. To be sure, Stockbridge’s path is a different one than what other cities have and it’s a decidedly more artistic one.
When asked about what comes next for him, he talks somewhat vaguely about other projects, how there are always new ones. Some take months, some linger for years.
“Projects like these aren’t clinical, they’re emotional,” he said. “If you don’t feel it anymore, you throw yourself at it for a while to get more, but you have to know when to stand back and say, OK, I’m done.”
“You don’t always know when it’s over. Now I do.”-30-