Featured in
Issue 143

Life in Pictures: Chris Killip

The first of an occasional series in which frieze invites an artist, curator or writer to discuss the images that have influenced them

BY Chris Killip in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 11

Walker Evans, Bed, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama, 1935, silver gelatin print, 18 x 22 cm. Courtesy © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1963, I was a 17-year-old trainee hotel manager at the only five-star hotel in the Isle of Man, where I was born. A keen racing cyclist, I had gotten my hands on a copy of Paris-Match and was tearing through the pages to get to the pictures of the Tour de France when I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954), depicting a boy carrying two bottles of wine. It stopped me in my tracks and held me spellbound. 

I was really puzzled as to why. It didn’t look like a snapshot, it wasn’t an advert, it wasn’t in the service of anything but itself, so what did that make it? To be truthful, I didn’t know, and at that time I couldn’t have talked about the confusion and excitement that this photograph was causing me. Up until then, it had never occurred to me that photography could be used as a means of expression. After seeing this image, I wondered about the possibilities for photography.

Six months later, my father scared me by saying he was prepared to pay for me to go to Switzerland, to attend a hotel management school. I liked hotel life but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it forthe rest of my career. So I left my job and became a beach photographer saying ‘smile please’ to strangers. I needed to earn enough money to go to London to try and get a job as a photographer’s assistant. I had been told that this was the only viable route that I could follow to learn anything about photography.

Fourteen years later I was with Cartier-Bresson in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, at a party to celebrate his 70th birthday. He told me that when he was 18 he went to see a fortune-teller, who predicted with uncanny accuracy everything about his life except, he said, for one thing: she had told him he would die young. He burst out laughing. Cartier-Bresson’s favourite piece of prose was Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce. It ends: ‘I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Cartier-Bresson lived to be 95 and those who knew him also knew that, at whatever age he died, he would die young.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954, silver gelatin print, 51 x 41 cm, photographed from the book Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans, Jean Claire, Thames & Hudson, 1999

I have a fondness for using Walker Evans’s photograph Bed, Tenant Farmhouse, Hale County, Alabama (1935) when I need to demonstrate to my students how I would write about a photograph. I explain that I try to avoid speculation and that I list my impressions of everything that I can see in the work. I then use this unadorned information as the factual base for my essay.

Bleak, sparse, bed, gun. No ornaments, no possessions; poverty, basic survival. Evans’s photograph is about the gun. The framing is odd in this image. One bed is skewed; the other juts awkwardly into the photograph. Why include it? Of course, it’s somebody else’s bed – the children’s. It’s a shared bedroom, no privacy. The window in the room is just a wooden shutter, no glass. To the left of the gun there’s a crack in the wooden wall showing daylight. This shack is a plank thick: in summer you sweat, in winter you freeze. It’s a flash photograph made in daylight, as Evans wants you to see everything clearly. Lower left, is a door hinge that is just in the picture. Evans is desperate to include it. It’s information: the bed is at that angle so that the door can open. Evans is probably backed up against the other wall, trying to include as much as his lens will allow. The gun is on the wrong side of the bed; it’s nowhere near the dirty side, the man’s side. The room has changed with time. The couple’s bed has been moved to accommodate the children’s bed. The gun has been left where it is and this seemingly simple photograph is, in fact, the illustrated history of this room.

I would define photography as a mechanical description of time, and Evans’s photograph has always eloquently endorsed this definition. The only problem is that in James Agee’s detailed factual description of the same room in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) the bed is not skewed. He says it’s perfectly straight and pushed against the wall. As Charles Dickens wrote in his novel Hard Times (1854): ‘In this life, we want nothing but facts, sir; nothing but facts!’

Chris Killip, Thrashing, Grenaby Farm, Isle of Man, 1973, inkjet print, 51 x 61 cm. Courtesy the author

My 1973 photograph Thrashing, Grenaby Farm, Isle of Man was not included in my book, Isle of Man (1980). Why? My stupidity. There’s just no way round it – the image of a thresher that was used in the book isn’t half as good. Adding torment to ignominy, Clive Dilnot, the visual theorist, in a 2006 essay about my work, used the published threshing photograph to illustrate why single images of work are doomed to fail.‘As a record it tells us less about the nature of agricultural work […] than might be supposed. The inference needed to movefrom the photographic scene to the durational reality of work is beyond that which the photograph can contain.’ 

In Thrashing, Grenaby ... I think I failed better, although I suspect that its atmosphere of ‘bucolic idyll’ would be a different sort of problem. This photograph more accurately describes threshing work, and shows something from the past: agricultural labour as communal effort.

I have been indebted to friends of mine in the Isle of Man, who a few years ago were opening a new venture in the countryside, a café-cum-bakery. They would never accept payment for all that they had done for my family. I decided to offer to decorate their new café and made them a set of prints depicting mills in the Isle of Man. Visiting them in 2008, I received an email, at my Harvard account, from the woman who is the head of the Isle of Man Postal Authority. She asked whether I had any images that I could envision as stamps. She didn’t know I was in the country, so I rather mischievously knocked on her door that afternoon, explaining that I had come as quickly as I could, and showed her the photographs that I was making for my friends. Eight of these, including Thrashing, Grenaby …, were released as a set of stamps in 2009. Last week I received a surprise package from Martin Parr, who had visited the Isle of Man in August, including the photograph he had taken in my friend’s café. Thrashing, Grenaby … is featured in the background. Fame at last!

Chris Killip is a photographer based in Cambridge, USA. Born in 1946 on the Isle of Man, UK, Killip has been taking photographs for nearly five decades. His work is featured in major museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, USA; the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. In 1989 he received the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and since 1991 has taught at Harvard University. His retrospective, ‘Arbeit’ (Work), curated by Ute Eskildsen, will be at the Museum Folkwang from 4 February to 15 April 2012.