Staff Pick: Ben Cricchi on the streets of Baltimore

George Clack serves on the Board of Directors for the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, he shares her staff pick from the Winter 2020 issue, Ann Bracken’s interview with photographer Ben Cricchi.

“A picture is a secret about a secret,” the great photographer Diane Arbus once said. “The more it tells you the less you know.” The photographs of Ben Cricchi, the Baltimore-based photographer interviewed in our winter issue, evoke a similar thought. Each Cricchi photo makes me wonder: what’s the story behind this photo? And what’s the story of the person Cricchi photographed?

Ann Bracken’s interview with Cricchi tells us a lot about the photographer’s work. In person, at the reading for our winter issue, Cricchi came across as a wry truth teller, the Harvey Pekar of Catonsville. That’s a persona I’ve always found appealing, and his LPR interview bears out that impression. 

Asked about his first experiences as a photographer, Cricchi tells of his early days in Paris trying to shoot candid street photos like his hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “So one day I went out into the streets of Paris and took some photos of a guy on a bicycle. He was Tunisian and, as the French say, from the ‘malgreb’ (the former French colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria). Anyway he saw me take the pictures, hopped off his bike, and chased me down. He grabbed my camera, opened it up, and yanked out all the film. Then he cornered me and shouted, ‘Never take a picture without asking permission again!’” 

“It’s so easy to vilify people, but if you see the humanity in people that’s a moral choice.” 

Ben Cricchi

That’s a lesson Cricchi learned well. Cricchi has a story about every photo he’s shot, and he loves to tell us who the subject of the photo is and the circumstances under which it was taken.  His images and his explanations in the interview – all of which leave room for an Arbus-style secret – match up nicely.  What I especially like is his unpretentious take on his own art. It’s blessedly free of the sort of art-world jargon museum curators these days revel in. 

“Society’s strata and the remains of an American apartheid still seethe below the surface of Baltimore.”  That’s how Cricchi’s artist’s statement begins, and it’s about as high-toned as he gets. So, Bracken asks, how do your photos help the people of Baltimore in meaningful ways? 

 “I want to humanize them,” says Cricchi. “It’s so easy to vilify people, but if you see the humanity in people that’s a moral choice.” 

Finally, Cricchi offers me one of those serendipitous personal connections that can brighten a reader’s day. Years back I wrote my senior thesis in college on the work of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, nowadays a fairly obscure author. Kazantzakis was not shy about grandiose pronouncements, and for his artistic credo, Cricchi quotes some lines from Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, among them: 

“My principal anguish and source

of all my joys and sorrows

from my youth onward 

has been the incessant, 

merciless battle between the flesh and the spirit…”

Cricchi’s down-to-earth translation: “I don’t have grandiose dreams and I’m not a careerist. But I know that if I follow my bliss my work can have meaning.”

See more of Cricchi’s photographs in the Winter 2020 issue.

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