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How Do You Photograph A City's Bankruptcy?

Photographer Kirk Crippens says you can't. But that hasn't stopped him from trying. Since 2009, he has been documenting the city of Stockton, Calif., which last year became the largest city in American history to file for bankruptcy — until Detroit filed yesterday. Before bankruptcy, Stockton was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. But before that, Crippens says, it "was an all-American city — Boomtown, USA — housing going up everywhere."

Stockton is one of California's largest inland ports. Duraflame, the manufacturer of fire starters, is there. And, at about an hour-and-a-half drive east of San Francisco, it had become a destination for city dwellers wanting more affordable space. Then the housing market imploded.

"Stockton is the canary in the coal mine," says Crippens. "It's looked at internationally by people who are wondering: Is this gonna happen in Detroit?"

Yesterday it did. Although it's still not clear what, exactly, that means. "There's no precedent," Crippens says. "We don't know."

There are plenty of ways in which Stockton and Detroit are completely different. But, Crippens, says, there are similar ways in which the cities can be understood. He admits that, as photographers often are, he was "drawn to the devastation first."

His early photos of Stockton — the ones included in this gallery — show empty neighborhoods, abandoned car lots, homelessness, general desolation. In recent months, though, he says his perspective has changed. He is still processing new images, but, he says, what he's been trying to capture is "the fact that life goes on."

His advice to photographers in Detroit, who might first be drawn to the devastation: "Look at the fullness and the balance of what's going on. If you have time, it's great to pull back and look at as many ends of the spectrum as you can."

And his advice for people living there: When a city files for bankruptcy, he says, "it sounds like the end of the world — but it's not. It's a process that takes longer than you'd think. But it turns out, from my perspective, that it's a stabilizing force that helps to right the city."

For the record, Crippens considers himself an artist and not so much a photojournalist. "I've been a photojournalist, and I know what that entails," he says. When I first saw his work at a photo conference this past April, I was struck by one image in particular. It reminded me of Walker Evans. Turns out that impression wasn't off-base:

"My inspiration for my economic work comes from the work created during the Great Depression — the works of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans," Crippens wrote to me via email last night.

"The photographs that Lange and Evans created during the Depression helped our country heal, reflect and remember. I'm trying to do the same. I serve as witness, as they did, and Stockton, my subject, represents the struggles our country has been going through during the largest economic crisis of our lifetime."

On an entirely different note, check out Portraitlandia — a more recent series by Crippens — recently featured on Wired. See a whole lot more on his website.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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