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Forget Capitol Hill, These Images Show the Real D.C.

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Funk Parade, U Street

More often than not, Washington, D.C., is associated with power and politics, with a dash of fireworks and monuments thrown in for good measure. That stereotype of the capital is exactly what photographer Bill Crandall avoids in his mysterious compositions of the District’s neighborhoods. His camera isn’t in the press pool but is turned on the “real city where people live.”

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Crowd at street concert, Bloomingdale

A native to the D.C. area and a current resident of Petworth, a neighborhood in Northwest D.C., Crandall recalls the first Metro stations opening in the 70s and coming of age during the heyday of the D.C. punk scene in the 80s. He’s seen the city change a lot. Many areas that once had a “kind of sleepy dereliction” are now prime real estate. That shift creates the kind of collision—or “fault line” as Crandall calls it—that sets the scene for his project Fairy Tales From the Fault Lines, in which he captures “seeds of truth wrapped in a little shroud of mystery or ambiguity or allegory.”

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Playground near rowhouses and new condos, U Street
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Alley fireworks, Fourth of July, Petworth

“Washington has been very divided by race and class for a long time, and with gentrification, those fault lines have been shifting and overlapping,” he says. “I’m very focused on this central corridor of neighborhoods.” He cites U Street and 14th Street as examples. “These are the areas changing the most and where you can find the interesting dynamics that transition brings. This is where the heart of D.C. for the foreseeable future is being forged.”

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Old and new, U Street
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Nuns with new development, Brookland

So what’s next for the soul of the city? He hopes new development leaves room for creative capital. “The city of my past is already long gone, which is OK, places need to change,” he says. He wonders if the rising cost of living may inhibit a “diverse, exciting, layered urban environment where people can pursue a variety of endeavors.” Good cities, he says, can become “beautiful but soulless places without their old cultural engines. Tender shoots and buds get stomped out.”

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”Give Me A Vote!” sculpture, Shaw

His images, though, are open to interpretation and aren’t meant to pinpoint any of D.C.’s transitions as right or wrong. “I’m not trying to show what’s wrong with the world—there’s enough of that,” he says. “I don’t want the work to be seen as some kind of literal reportage on the changes that are going on. It’s more a desire to find a kind of poetry that can transcend the usual knee-jerk ways that we think of D.C. and its divisions. The city is becoming a different place, and I want to bottle how it feels now.”

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Backstage at burlesque show, H Street Northeast

Crandall lists mystery, surprise, strangeness, simplicity, and a sense of atmosphere as things he keeps an eye out for when he’s shooting, which he says happens in the flow of normal life. “At times it’s a struggle,” he says, “ but I’ve become so in tune with what I’m looking for that I usually recognize ‘my picture’ right away. It’s sort of like a divining rod—I feel a kind of quiver and try to hone in on whatever it is without questioning too much.”

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Visitor on a window screen, Petworth
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Fire performers from Dance Afire Productions, H Street Northeast

The images are meant for both Washingtonians, who he hopes will find the work nuanced, and the general public, who he hopes will see that “Washington is not just a kind of barracks town for the government.”

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Summer concert, Petworth

But at their core, the photos serve as a kind of journal, helping Crandall process his feelings about his home. “Mainly I want to know if I can love this city, if it can have magic and mystery worthy of great cities. At times I’m not sure if I’m shooting the D.C. that is, that was, or that I wish [it] to be.”

See more of Bill Crandall’s work on his website, and follow his Fairy Tales on Instagram.

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