by Andrew Finch
As well as being historically significant documents, the photographs’ inherent sense of timelessness is their most arresting characteristic
Chris Killip’s documentation of British working-class life is one of the most influential and poignant bodies of work to emerge from 20th-century photography. In this exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, curators Ken Marshall and Tracey Grant bring together the first comprehensive retrospective of Killip’s oeuvre, reflecting the humanity and resilience of northern communities beset by industrialisation and Thatcher’s policies in the 1970s and 80s.
Born on the Isle of Man in 1946, Killip pursued a career in photography after being inspired by the work of Henri Bresson-Cartier. After working on commercial advertising campaigns in London and New York, he later moved back to his native land in 1970 to photograph "real moments in people's lives’'. Working evenings in his father's pub and photographing the locals by day on a medium format camera, Killip began forging an empathetic connection between people and place that would carry the force of his practice through to his late position as Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University until his recent death in 2020.
The retrospective opens with the early Isle of Man series, capturing a disappearing way of life set against a backdrop of emerging political shifts: plowing horses, rolling pastures and hills, ancient Neolithic burial sites, and stonewalls dividing the terra firma. The intimate close-range portraits of Manx residents subtly express their woes and anxieties through the complexity of their gazes as they look out from town halls, barns, and domestic interiors. Characteristic of this is one of the silver gelatine prints: Mr. Radcliffe (1973). He stands soot-black in a parish doorway, heavily leaning on a cane whilst reaching out to a black and white cat. His face is grooved with rural stoicism as he looks on at the photographer with unperturbed acknowledgement.
Following a series of Arts Council grants, Killip travelled around the North of England, widely documenting the landscapes of industrial regions. In Playground (1974), children gambol about on a climbing frame in Huddersfield while smoking stacks of factories billow out in the background, ghostly reminders of the devastating social and environmental impact of encroaching industrialisation. These early exercises in composition and form brilliantly capture the changing social landscape by Killip, focusing his lens on the distinctive local geographies in a way that he would continue in subsequent decades.
Related: Art in Action: The Whitechapel Centre and New Beginnings
In 1981, Killip gained the trust of a community of coal mudlarks in Lynemouth, Northumberland. Beset by ravaging storms on the shore, the Seacoal series presents a collection of monumental work that is both majestic and imposing. As well as being historically significant documents, the photographs’ inherent sense of timelessness is their most arresting characteristic, often resonating in a near-biblical quality.
The erosion of time and land, the colossal weight of pushing against the earth, and the affliction of poverty render Killip’s subjects archetypal in their plight. Contemporary audiences will likely find a sobering overlap with Britain's current period of austerity, where Northern towns and cities still feel the most devastating effects.
Killip reaches the height of his powers by situating himself within these communities, shooting from an intimate position that he persevered to gain access to. In the Skinningrove series, made between 1982 and 1984 in North Yorkshire, we see the harnessing of a close-knit friendship between a group of young men, Bever, Leso and Boo, moments of quiet calm as they wait for the tides to ebb to begin work. The kinship betweenthe men, as well as their ease with Killip’s presence, brings a disarming humility to his documentary practice. By allowing his subjects to express themselves without constraint, Killip empowers them to rise above the tenacity to survive and into the desire to live.
The final part of the retrospective is dedicated to Killip’s now-classic In Flagrante publication. Alongside photos from the miner’s strikes and everyday northern life, the most arresting work here is the crowds of punk gigs taken at a social club in Gateshead. Contorted faces and a mass of bodies heave forward, chains, leather, and studded straps flailing, caught in the maelstrom of the music’s sonic balm. Punk music’s impact on disaffected youth has been thoroughly documented, yet the inclusion of this work within the retrospective presents a hopeful statement on subcultures' continual ability to build a brief escape route from desperate economic circumstances.
You can begin anywhere in Killip’s work and find tenderness contained in his exquisite photographic form. That’s where the power of his practice lies, always singing to the enduring persistence of communities to move, adapt, and come together through the plight of life, caught both within and above the fray.