Freemasonry, the world’s oldest and largest fraternity, has been around for over two centuries. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were members, as were Mozart, Winston Churchill, and Steve Wozniak. Today, their mysterious traditions and grandiose rituals endure in Masonic lodges across the country (and their symbols are rumored to be everywhere), but membership has been steadily declining due to lack of interest from younger generations. Photographer Jamie Kripke captures this strange world in his series Freemasonry, giving us a window into an organization with a rich past and uncertain future.
For Kripke, an introduction to the secrecy and symbolism of the Masonic tradition came during a tour of a Scottish Rite Temple while at a photography workshop in Santa Fe. Struck by an image of light hitting a yellow staircase, Kripke became curious about the interiors of other Masonic lodges. “It was like seeing another world, or being in a time capsule,” he says.
Gaining access was, surprisingly, not that difficult. Though notoriously mysterious, the fraternal order has begun to open up to the public in recent years, in part to attract younger members. Kripke merely sat down with a few members to show them his work and convince them that he was more interested in the spaces than in exposing their secret rituals. With those members’ letters of recommendation, he was able to gain access to nearly all of the lodges he wanted to document.
Over the past nine years, Kripke has traveled around California, Wyoming, and Colorado seeking out lodges to photograph. He stays within his bounds, sticking to images of the buildings themselves, rather than what occurs inside of them. Secrecy, he says, is still prevalent in every aspect of Freemason history, even down to the design of the buildings. “They are these big stone buildings with tiny windows,” he says. “That really changes the light in the building. They are naturally dark, so they have a lot of lighting inside to deal with that.” He opted not to stage his own lighting, instead taking long exposure photographs to capture the dimly lit meeting rooms.
Kripke’s images show a world frozen in time. Men wear uniforms adorned with metals, ribbons line glass cases; and cavernous rooms seem perpetually poised to hold some sort of secret ceremony. Though Kripke purposefully shot the images when not many people were around, they seem to eerily echo the direction Freemasonry has been headed in.
Take, for instance, the meeting room in a lodge in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Kripke noticed group photos lining the wall. They showed membership that had once been in the hundreds dwindled down to the dozens in recent years. “The more time I spent there, the more I realized this is a culture in decline,” Kripke says, pointing to the internet as a possible cause. “It’s a generational thing…now you don’t need a building to have a social network or to find your people.”
To see more of Kripke’s work, head over to his website.