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Issue 233

Chris Killip Chronicled the UK’s Industrial Decline

An elegant retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, has striking contemporary resonance in a country that remains profoundly unequal

BY Julie Hrischeva in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 25 OCT 22

On a trip to New York in 1969, Chris Killip had an epiphany. Seeing the work of Walker Evans, August Sander and Paul Strand for the first time in the Museum of Modern Art, he realized that photography could be made for its own sake. By the early 1970s, the self-taught photographer had abandoned his career in advertising and moved back to his native Isle of Man to document the slow erosion of the island’s traditional way of life. 

The retrospective opens with these early plate photographs. There is a sense of Killip’s transition from commercial vernacular to instinctive chronicling, as we move from straight portraits to intimate pictures taken at close range. In one particularly naturalistic image, Ms ‘Dolly’ Crellin (‘Isle of Man’ series, c. 1970-73) looks into the camera with a half-smile of acknowledgement that endears us to the man behind the lens. Elegantly and astutely curated by the late photographer’s friends, Ken Grant and Tracy Marshall-Grant, the show’s hang echoes Killip’s celebrated photobooks while introducing novel pairings, completing a project started a decade earlier. (Killip himself selected and printed much of the work on show for a potential retrospective at the gallery.) 

Chris Killip
Chris Killip, Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1975. Courtesy: © Chris Killip Photography Trust and  The Martin Parr Foundation

On Arts Council commissions and fellowships, Killip moved around the northeast of England throughout the 1970s and ’80s, documenting the region’s industrial decline. Terraced streets mark the passing of time at the margins, with shipyards and smokestacks looming in the background as working-class life ebbs and dereliction sets in. This is empathic, serious and formally brilliant photography. For Killip, it seems, documenting the fullness and value of these lives was imperative: projects from the 1980s bear witness to this, such as the ‘Seacoal’ series (1982–84), which records itinerant labourers scavenging coal washed ashore on the beach of Lynemouth, Northumberland. 

Chris Killip
Chris Killip, The Station, Gateshead, 1985. Courtesy: © Chris Killip Photography Trust and The Martin Parr Foundation

Despite a familiarity with coastal communities from his youth, Killip was an outsider here, determined to earn the trust of those he photographed. He lived for years in a caravan on the beach in Lynemouth and befriended a group of young men in Skinningrove, producing some of the most arresting photographs in the exhibition. In Simon Being Taken out to Sea for the First Time Since His Father Drowned (1983), a young boy sits on a fishing boat in his suit, head bowed, heartbreakingly small and immobilized with fear.

His ‘Seacoal’ series includes many painterly and formally striking photographs: the off-kilter angle of Helen and her Hula-hoop (1984) reflects the desolate, windswept scene. Moira Hand-Picking in the Very Good Fur Coat (1984) is titled with a pride and specificity that no doubt quotes Moira verbatim. Killip allows his subjects to speak for themselves, resisting erasure: a salve, perhaps, for the often dehumanizing conditions in which they live. The contemporary relevance to a country that remains deeply unequal, with neglected communities at the mercy of political and economic forces, is clear.

Chris Killip
Chris Killip, Gordon in the Water, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, 1983. Courtesy: © Chris Killip Photography Trust and The Martin Parr Foundation

Closing the exhibition are works from Killip’s 1988 publication In Flagrante, which liberated select photographs from their individual series to provide an incisive and varied study of the decade, from punks to striking miners. Included is a rare shot of Killip, anonymous and unassuming in a utilitarian suit at The Station nightclub in Gateshead, the flash of his camera protectively wrapped in plastic, in stark contrast to the roiling pit of punks on the wall opposite (Chris Killip photographing at The Station, Gateshead, 1985). Killip returned to the communities he photographed throughout his life: his approach is most keenly expressed in the enduring connections formed with those whose stories he told.

Chris Killip is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 19 February 2023. ‘20/20: Chris Killip/Graham Smith’, is also on show at Augusta Edwards, London, until 6 November.

Main image: Chris Killip, Helen and her Hula-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumbria, 1984. Courtesy: © Chris Killip Photography Trust and The Martin Parr Foundation

Julie Hrischeva is the Editor, Art and Architecture, Yale University Press, London.