Portrait Of a Bankrupt City
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,” he says with not a small amount of humility.
When Stockton filed for bankruptcy in July 2012, it was the largest city in U.S. history to do so. Preceding Detroit by one year. By that time, Crippens had already been making images in Stockton and similar towns at the edges of Northern California’s Bay Area for four years.
Towns and cities that had grown most rapidly during the housing boom, emptied the quickest when times got tough. At the height of the housing crisis in 2010, 1 in 10 homes in Stockton were in foreclosure and the value of some family homes dropped 60%. Full of abandoned new builds, vacant malls and car-lots, these towns fueled Crippens’ series Foreclosure and The Great Recession which are both beautiful meditations on American capitalism and bleak collapse.
“The shifting economic climate in the United States is at the heart of my work,” says Crippens, “from the housing crisis to the great recession, to the soaring hubris of Silicon Valley.”
Trajectory of fortunes for the people in the municipalities of the region Crippens photographed were near identical. Struggling Stockton merely managed to struggle a little more than elsewhere; its ignominious bankruptcy was the sad detail that distinguished it just enough from its sad surrounding neighbors.
Many factors including ill-timed bond offerings, excessive city employee compensations, over-reliance on housing market for tax-growth and all round optimism by Stockton’s money men led to the city’s financial demise. A month before it filed for bankruptcy, Stockton faced more than $1 billion of unfunded liabilities for retirement benefits and city bond interest payments.
Bank Rupture includes portrait of individuals without homes, public servants in offices, minimum wage earners, and local kids probably (thankfully?) too young to understand the seismic economic shifts racking their community. Crippens mixes in pics of buildings and interior domestic scenes. Revealing the familiar, he frames moments to which viewers can connect … and understand.
The fall was rapid, but Stockton’s bankruptcy process moved slow over three years. This was mainly because the presiding judge, Judge Klein, had to determine if public pensions administered by California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERs) warranted protection. It was a delicate and emotional sticking point.
On October 1st, 2014, Klein said that the city of Stockton had legal authority to break its contract with the CalPERS and scale back its pension plan. Nevertheless, in February 2015, he approved Stockton’s reorganization plan that kept pensions fully intact.
The workers in Stockton caught a break; not having it all taken away was the best of bunch of bad outcomes. For Americans as a whole, the Stockton ruling has brought no legally-watertight protections their pensions in similar, future municipal bankruptcy cases.
“This ruling will reverberate across the economic landscape,” says Crippens. “The bankruptcy has been followed internationally because precedents are being set.”
He may be based in Emeryville just outside of Oakland, but Cripens cannot be separated from his god-to-honest Texan roots. His method is as straight as they come. He sees someone on the street he likes, approaches, strikes up conversation and describes his project.
“I would ask them about their city and the roles they play it,” says Crippens. “They would share ideas and introduce me to other folks. This is how I work.”
Unabashed, Crippens would ask for their contact information so he could deliver a portrait next time he was in town.
“I’d visit their homes to drop off the print. This process provided the evidence that I was trustworthy,” he says. “Portraits would improve with subsequent visits, so would the access.”
Incredibly, Crippens rarely made photographs of people before Bank Rupture. A place is its people.
“The relationships I formed and the things I witnessed have changed my heart,” says Crippens. “My [future] approach will be different. I’ll take Stockton with me into my new projects, it will always be with me.”
That sums up Crippens’ work and the main takeaways. He’s slow to lambast capitalism in broad strokes. Stockton suffered from the terrible decisions of its leaders, exacerbated by poor to non-regulation of the markets nationally and internationally. That said, capitalism can ferment growth and change, says Crippens. He sees both the good and the bad.
“There is no doubt that capitalism has been a force for good in our society. We have created wealth and stability via capitalism. We have fed, clothed, housed, and provided for the needs of millions, no billions, of people for many years,” says Crippens. “We have also created poverty and instability inside our capitalistic society. We have starving homeless folks we ignore within our wealthy society. Capitalism in its purest form does not seem to recognize the beauty and worth of humanity, animals or the environment.”
The big banks, in Crippens’ estimation, are still too big and that they are still “too big to fail” is a glaring problem. Ultimately though Crippens is a pragmatist.
“Capitalism is the economic model we live under in the United States,” he sums up. “I serve as witness to some of its ripples. A definitive yes or no from me on capitalism’s merit wouldn’t mean a thing.”
Despite the doom and gloom, despite the struggle and strife, it is the humanity and the optimism thats stays with this photographer.
“I met wonderful, welcoming, hospitable and helpful folks,” says Crippens. “It was an honor to get to know the people of Stockton and witness the things left behind by the Great Recession, because I collected a bit of their story, not only in the photos but inside of me.”