By Matthew Herzog
Delicate is a word referencing both fragility and intricacy. Overuse erodes our trust in it. Tone determines our intent behind the word. What is delicate not only exists in a frail state but can easily express the impulse of our judgement. In Kensington Blues, Jeffrey Stockbridge’s recent exhibit at Savery Gallery, our words and the effect of our tone arrive on an equally sentient teeter. The photographs are a documentation to an end we determine.
This is an exhibit on our neighbors, our meth capital, the place we go to party and parTy. It’s the home of pawn shops, night walkers, tent colonies under the L, million dollar pop up houses, and an Empowerment Zone. It’s been home for generations, newly home to an encroaching generation Y and Z. Tech savvy near Needle Alley.
Stockbridge’s photographs - of what can be described as the tragically familiar imagery of Kensington - display survival in an urban and drug gutted neighborhood. The people appear as relics, nebulae whose history is steeped in stories I couldn’t know. I recognize the badlands, setal crews, portraits like binging saints. To call the photographs delicate is to acknowledge powerlessness and hint at the painful vulnerability of their subjects. A vulnerability one could conversely attribute to the exhibit’s strength.
From a technical glance, the presentation is perfect. The hanging, the print quality, the willingness of the subject suggesting an almost bartered communion between photographer and documentee. ‘Let me show you’, I imagine murmuring from the work. These qualities are what we expect from photographers. And Stockbridge delivers.
His documentary, Surviving Kensington, showcases how far his subjects can go and how deep Stockbridge will expose himself to the lengths of others. That’s a relative statement. The ‘lengths of others’ is a description by someone removed. I’d assume the ‘lengths’ Stockbridge’s subjects are willing to take are far shorter than the consequences they expect if they weren’t to take them. Again, that’s supposition from someone that isn’t there.
The video functions as a connective device between viewer and subject. It’s one thing to read someone’s words or look at their photograph but to hear the voices of Stockbridge’s subjects is an event more intimate, inescapable. The sense of forgiven urgency, an urban chemical oblivion, that their lives are tailored within a present desire, is felt in each frame.
One part of the video, set inside a Kensington home, features a man saying, ‘Most these people around here. Everybody’s gettin’ busted and jacked. Place is gettin’ overcrowded, more than usual. Been hearing a lot of stuff from the railroad lately. People are dying left and right over there. And I sit back and say, ‘There’s another satisfied customer.’’ The man laid out on a nearby bed, photographs of his parents, a dog, his baby picture. The history that made him who he was floated closely to the reality of his life.
In pairing photographs with the voices of his subjects, Stockbridge provides a complicated experience. The work evokes the function of National Geographic, the lurking exploitation of VICE, maybe the economics of Dorothea Lange and the urban courses of Diane Arbus. It’s not proper to include so many references but the triangulation (square-ulation) of contemporaries helps to understand how many avenues Stockbridge’s work can be interpreted - and how to understand the importance of place/intention when your subject is all tragedies but your own. Certainly any Nurse/Counselor/Disaster Relief Agent would press the potential of collateral pain but these are the politics of representation. It is, after all, Art. Art displayed in the newest, cleanest gallery of a long-running best-kept - on the precipice of being un-kept - secret Art building in Philadelphia.
In a way, there are many parallels between the environment in which Stockbridge exhibits and that which the exhibit portrays. Not only is the Vox building at an ever present risk of an L&I raid/white collar upgrade, so is the Kensington neighborhood. Not only are lifestyles and cultural emergence the history of both places, so are their tides of economy, ethnic pools, and artists. The Vox building has had many lives. Kensington is no different.
Though the parallels are interesting, the separations stress the mysterious purpose of the exhibit. How am I to take these and why were they done? Like National Geographic but unlike Diane Arbus, these photographs appear documentative. Though like National Geographic and Diane Arbus, they were unsolicited.
The question aside, Stockbridge’s work encompases a subject that must be addressed. To actively engage in the rise of drug addiction, cities across the world have introduced new and creative methods, opting to treat the person before declaring war on the drug. Speaking of collateral pain, the war on drugs hasn’t seemed to care for the body the drugs were inside.
Places like Vancouver have founded safe injection centers. Users can inject in a well lit booth with health care professionals and counselors on stand-by. Crack-pipe vending machines are even offered in nearby drug resource centers at twenty five cents a pop. Worcester, Massachusetts unveiled prescription medication drop-off kiosks after a six day stretch in 2014 when 9 people were killed from opioid overdoses. In Philadelphia, Prevention Point Philadelphia is a project ‘working for 25 years to reduce the harm associated with substance use and sex industry work by promoting health, empowerment and safety while advocating for humane public policies and programs.’
Note: 10% of Stockbridge’s Kensington Blues book sales go directly toward this program.
Stockbridge takes us through the lives of our drug addicted section of Philadelphia. He lays out a narrative swapping the 80’s Nancy Reagan conversation for a present day epidemic. The dehumanization of drug fiends is re-humanized by calling them Mike Aka Dense, Jose, Jess, Tom, Maria, and Danny.
By defining the exhibit as a testament for another’s life, the viewer is put on trial for their opinion. Are we moral agents with civic responsibility? Are we altruistic, egalitarian? Are we doing enough to help? Interestingly, the consequences of our choice could appear in the amount of people Stockbridge will be photographing in the future.
It’s as if Stockbridge created a new word, our tone in using such reflecting only ourselves. It’s probably the conversational framework we should have been having around drug addiction, one where we are implicated and accountable. Stockbridge’s subjects may be our responsibility, our social challenge, or, in simpler ways, portrayals of our neglected delicates.