Nine years ago, Jeffrey Stockbridge, a young Philadelphia photographer getting attention for his haunting images of the interiors of abandoned houses and of the then-derelict Divine Lorraine Hotel, decided to get himself better acquainted with Kensington.
As Stockbridge recalls in his book, Kensington Blues, he drove “aimlessly up and down Kensington Avenue, peering out from behind my steering wheel, too scared to get out of the car. Every woman on every corner was making eyes at me. They were staring me down, hoping I’d pick them up. Here I am, a scruffy looking guy driving a beat-up black sedan…I looked the part. When I stopped at a red light, a woman opened the passenger door and jumped in without hesitation.”
Stockbridge ditched the car and began walking the streets of Kensington instead, introducing himself to strangers and asking them about themselves and — if they seemed genuinely interested — showing them photographs from his projects and books, hoping they might be willing to be photographed. Early on, most of the people willing to share their stories with him were women, and the majority of them were homeless and drug-addicted and had turned to prostitution to survive.
He began taking their portraits with his bulky 4×5 camera, an elaborate process requiring him not only to set up his camera on a tripod and focus on his subjects, but also to load a film holder and take light-meter readings. Word got around that Stockbridge was a serious photographer who was working on a book. Soon, everyone on the streets of Kensington wanted to be in it.
Gripped by the candor of his subjects’ responses to his questions about the unraveling of their lives, Stockbridge also began interviewing them on an audio recorder and photographing the diarylike notes and other written materials they gave him.
Now being exhibited in Philadelphia for the first time at Savery Gallery, the photographs and stories that make up Kensington Blues are hard to take. There’s Mary, now in her late 40s, who was 13 or 14 when she was picked up by a man who “shot me up with heroin.” Tattoo-covered Wilfredo says, “I’ve been using since I was 12, I’m 32.” Dennis, a middle-aged man in a down jacket and baggy jeans, is shown shooting heroin into the neck of a similarly down-and-out-looking woman, Sarah, at the weedy, trash-strewn Lehigh Viaduct.
Another Sarah, 55 and crouching in front of a peeling wall at Front and Oxford Streets, has a master’s degree in psychology. She says she became an addict and prostitute after surviving a car crash that killed her husband and parents and left her with her back broken in five places and a crushed pelvis and knees. “I, uh, lost my home of 20-some years, in Mount Holly, New Jersey. I lost my entire family; my career, um, my health, all in one fell swoop. Uh, yeah.”
Having seen Stockbridge’s show twice before reading his book, which offers more of his interviews and written pieces by his subjects, I was struck by the sense of mutual trust between Stockbridge and his subjects embodied in his large, melancholy, often unexpectedly beautiful color photographs. Stockbridge felt his subjects’ paths to their dire circumstances needed a voice. His profoundly moving book, available for sale at the gallery and through the website https://kensingtonblues.com, provides the answers.
Through June 2 at Savery Gallery, 319 N. 11th St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Information: 267-687-7769 or www.saverygallery.com.
Latin American modernism, emphasis on the mod
Whenever I’ve seen Cecilia Biagini’s painted-wood sculptures at Pentimenti Gallery, I’ve enjoyed her personal, hands-on take on 20th-century Latin American geometric abstraction (and even if I didn’t know Biagini was from Argentina, I would have recognized the influence of such Latin American masters as Edgar Negret and Lygia Clark on her work).
Her current show has several such sculptures, which, as in past works of hers, are aggregations of pieces of painted wood the size of small shingles or tiles that she’s stacked slightly irregularly in curvaceous forms. Usually wall-mounted, they cast wonderful, mysterious shadows that are nearly as beguiling as the works themselves.
The shadows cast by her recent sculptures, such as Ecuacion de Continuidad, look like silhouettes of important male writers or political figures, but I could be imagining that. An installation of suspended wood sculptures in the gallery’s vault space, accompanied by a sound track of “music” by musicians whom Biagini asked to respond musically to her arrangement of sculptures — not, unsurprisingly, a difficult task for them — complements the work perfectly.
Biagini’s linear abstract paintings, which mark a new development in her work (although she studied painting in Buenos Aires with the internationally known Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca), seem be channeling Latin American modernism, too, but are oddly, and perhaps intentionally, dated-looking — perfect for that empty spot behind the Saarinen table.
Through Saturday at Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. 2nd St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 215-625-9990 or www.pentimenti.com.
Neighboring eye candy in Callowhill
A couple of works I liked and photographed in one building shared by two galleries in the Callowhill neighborhood: Beth Heinly’s cheery, expansive wall painting Disney Sleeping Clock Mural, at Vox Populi, and Colleen Billing’s unsettling sandal send-up, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the gastrointestinal tract out of the girl, at Automat.
Beth Heinly through June 25 at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th St., 12 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Information: 215-238-1236 or www.voxpopuligallery.org.
Colleen Billing through next Sunday at Automat, 319 N. 11th St., 12 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org.