There’s the Philadelphia you know as a visitor: Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin’s house, the coronary brought on by a Tony Luke’s cheesesteak. And then there is Jeffrey Stockbridge‘s Philadelphia, a full-blown urban apocalypse no tourist would ever set foot in.
Stockbridge, a Philadelphia native, marches around the city with his large-format 4×5 camera, climbing into abandoned houses where squatters fetch up. Here, what passes for bedroom decor is a collision of filthy chairs and smashed television sets and the occasional tree branch sprouting through the wall boards or “R.I.P.” scratched above what appears to be a blood-stained mattress. It’s this bleak alternative vision of American domesticity — like an Arch Digest shoot gone terribly wrong — that Stockbridge documents obsessively in Jeffrey Stockbridge: Photographs 2005-2008. The exhibit is on view at the Wapping Project Bankside, a gallery in London, until September 3.
“Philadelphia was hit hard by the post-industrial economic decline during the mid-to-late 20th century,” Stockbridge explains. “My work… explores the state of mind of these neglected neighbourhoods. I am interested in the concept of shelter and its relationship to survival. Drug use, prostitution and vacant homes are deeply ingrained in the culture of Philadelphia. They stand as a result of poverty but they also propel it. Many people ask me why I choose to photograph such a negative subject matter. My answer is ‘I live in this city.'”
Thing is, if you look close enough — beyond the shattered flower pots and the violent gashes in the ceilings — you can actually make out glimmer of optimism. It’s clearest in the human portraits. (Stockbridge’s original idea was just to photograph deserted houses. But then he kept meeting people who lived in or near the houses so he started snapping them, too.) “The portraits… became a vital part of the series,” Stockbridge tells Co.Design. “These are the people who occupy the houses and neighborhoods that others have chosen to abandon. Their presence signifies life and survival in an unlikely setting.” Sure enough, there’s Dino leaning on an umbrella and staring straight at the camera with a half smile, and Millie in a too-tight red tank top with her hand planted firmly on her hip, looking sassy. The photographs don’t bully you into pity. They capture the subjects as they themselves would want to be seen.
[Images courtesy of Jeffrey Stockbridge; hat tip to Creative Review]