‘The Time of Chris Killip’

Chris Killip: Arbeit/Work, Folkwang Museum / Steidl, 2012

The Time of Chris Killip

by David Campany

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.
(Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Scene V.)


This is a good moment to look at the work of Chris Killip. The period and places he photographed intensively belong to that most precarious of states, the recent past. They are neither fresh in the mind nor solidified into convenient history. His images can still be measured against living memory and experience, still fought for and fought over as documents, as artworks. For those who were not there – those too young and those to come in twenty, thirty, fifty years’ time – this work will be just as compelling, if on different terms.

The facts of Killip’s life in photography are straightforward enough. He was born in Douglas on the Isle on Man in 1946. He began to use a camera aged seventeen and moved to London at eighteen to become an assistant to a successful advertising photographer. He worked as a freelance until 1969 when, on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he saw the work of modern photographers such as Paul Strand and Walker Evans. Inspired, he left his commercial work to pursue his own path.

Returning to the Isle of Man he earned his keep working nights in his father’s pub. The island’s new status as a tax haven was undermining all continuity and Killip took as his first major theme the disappearance of its traditional work and culture. He immersed himself in the lives of others. The outcome, after several years, was a large collection of formally elegant, rhetorically complex and emotionally rich photographs, later published as a book.

He developed this intensive way of working through a series of long-term commissions and fellowships in different places including Bury St. Edmunds, Huddersfield, the north east of England, and the Pirelli tire factory at Burton-on-Trent, Derbyshire. Over twenty-five years these patient, epic projects built into a profound attempt to describe the way the British working class was being confronted, often very brutally, with hostile economic policy and cultural authoritarianism. This is the overarching theme that shapes the work gathered here.

From 1970 onwards Killip’s images appeared regularly in the photographic press and his reputation grew with each published folio.[1]Audiences could see he had absorbed the best qualities of the interwar photographers he admired and whose work was then being rediscovered (notably Eugène Atget, Bill Brandt and August Sander, along with Strand and Evans). There were also links with the fluid, more openly subjective possibilities opened up by Robert Frank’s book The Americans (1959) and the vanguard Japanese photography of the 1960s.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Killip exhibited either in solo shows or alongside kindred spirits such as Graham Smith.[2] In 1976 he co-founded Side Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and was intimately involved with its pioneering programme of resistant, independent photography. Commissions from The London Review of Books added to his growing body of portraits.

The Pirelli work would be the “last and very necessary piece of the jigsaw puzzle” of Killip’s work in Britain.[3] In September 1991 he took a teaching position at Harvard University, having never taught before. Twenty years on he is based there still, a Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies. He has not photographed in America but regular trips to Ireland between 1993 and 2005 led to the book Here Comes Everybody (2009), which included his first work in color.

Facts and chronology can be deceptive. The path of Chris Killip’s working life gives us little sense of how his project took shape and how significant it has been for more than a generation of followers, photographers and cultural historians. As early as 1971 he was described by his friend and mentor Shoji Yamagishi (editor of the influential magazine Camera Mainichi) as “a young man with a strong will, bordering on the stubborn.”[4] He was also possessed of an understanding of human character and a singular photographic vision, both of which were mature almost from the outset. This rare combination set him apart from his peers and on a course quite out of step with developments in the medium’s artistic and documentary directions.

Work of the very highest standards never belongs entirely to its moment. Its genesis cannot be predicted or accounted for, nor its resonance over time. Its force and complexity elude comprehension because its mysteries are as vital as its revelations. Given the nature of his photographs it seems entirely plausible that the young Killip understood this, at least on an intuitive level. Perhaps it came from his early encounters with the great photography of the past, sensing how it belonged to him and was pertinent to his own situation. But it may have come simply from using a camera from a young age, thinking carefully about what it can and cannot reveal, the perplexing way it is both a machine and a transformative instrument. The answer is probably too elusive but it is important to realize how unusual Killip’s photography was, in its approach and its quality. If he was a ‘product of his time’ it was in no straightforward sense.

Time and timeliness. These are the two qualities that have bound photography to the project of modernity, for good or bad. “One must be of one’s time” was of course the slogan of the realist artists and writers of the second half of the nineteenth century, when photography was new. For the painter Gustave Courbet and his circle, it represented not just an artistic calling but a commitment to a new way of living, a new way of being, a new way of attuning oneself to the world. The demand was simple but multi-layered. Firstly, it implied that ‘one’s time’ was significantly different from the past, and from times to come. Indeed it was in the nineteenth century that artists and writers first experienced in a deep and unavoidable way the ruptures of modernity. Time was inconsistent, ‘out of joint’. It did not simply pass, rather its very character was subject to change. Secondly, it implied that the role of artists and writers was to immerse themselves in this new temporality and allow it to be expressed through them. Their task was not to look back nor to resist the present, nor to predict the future. It was to grasp everyday experience in its transience and particularity, its subtlety and physicality. Thirdly, being attentive to the texture and the grain of the present also implied being attentive to one’s location in the world. In effect to be of one’s time implied that one must be of one’s place.

Even in the nineteenth century to know with any certainty the nature of one’s time and place was not easy. In fact, the emergence of a desire for such knowledge was itself a response to the difficulty of attaining it. After all, we tend to think we know what is particular about a time and place only with hindsight. Perhaps we can only be of our time and place without really knowing it in the fullest sense. The task would only become more difficult. Histories began to conflict with each other. Populations began to move. Cultures began to mix or clash. Different orders of time and place began to assert themselves on daily life in ways that could not be reconciled. Even finding a fixed position from which to consider the rapid changes was a challenge. Here in the twenty-first century we are trying to come to terms with the effects of a long period of instability, if only to prepare ourselves for the instabilities to come.

But there is another way of understanding the injunction to be of one’s time, one that responds to the contradictions of modern life. It involves the invention of one’s own time, against the grain. This seems to have been Killip’s approach. On the Isle of Man around 1970 it took the form of a rejection of the relentless turnover of mass culture he had come to know in London. He attuned instead to the slow procedures of the large format camera on location, feeling his way in to the careful production of crafted, hewn images. This required working without the distraction of peers or deadlines. His work on the island began as a study of its water mills and he had thought he might make a book on this subject. But as he began to photograph people in relation to their landscape and architecture (‘the social fabric’) a more explicitly political understanding of modern time and its effects began to emerge. Killip’s subject matter was to be history as it is lived from within, not as it is written. His subjects would be those people left behind, marginalized or otherwise locked out by the forces of modernity. The slow commitment of Killip’s long projects would be an empathetic commitment to lives lived in the shadow of history.

In this sense only it has been a documentary project. The term is misleading because the narrow and conservative conventions that still dominated photography in the 1970s were part of what Killip was resisting. In the hands of the mass media and the populist illustrated press, documentary photography had been reduced to a formula reliant on spectacle, sentimentalism and a depoliticized account of the downtrodden. The photographic theory then emerging in Britain and North America was developing a powerful critique of the ideological underpinnings of the illustrated press, but the mistake, dangerously widespread at the time, was to assume that documentary ‘was’ its mass media manifestation.[5] Many critics, commentators and educators were set on denouncing the medium’s truth claims and commercial illusions as equally dubious tricks. Impatient with just how ineffable and demanding images can be, the terms of the discussion were often reductive. Faith in the reality of images or faith in their unreality. Naïve realism or real nihilism.

Killip and a handful of others felt photography should not, could not, be equated with its easiest and worst practices. There was, if you looked carefully, a long and hard-won legacy of experimental documentary photography, a way of working in which form was not assumed as a convention but shaped in the midst of each and every project. This was a practice in which the descriptive limits of photographs would not be glossed over by racy editing or glued together by captions for easy consumption.[6] Any meaningful documentary practice requires work from the reader. It asks them to consider what is being described, how it is being described and to accept the parameters. But in the 1970s and certainly by the early 1980s the idea of an experimental documentary photography seemed to most like an oxymoron. One could be experimental or documentary.

In the years since, the illustrated press has all but collapsed, taking its conventions with it. There is no longer a default form and as a result there is a more open attitude to photography, albeit with limited outlets. We can certainly see the recent renaissance of the experimental documentary photobook in these terms, the innovations of which have even influenced the illustrated press that survives in the wake of television and the internet. This is the climate in which Chris Killip’s work has been so enthusiastically discovered by new audiences.

Before this gets too abstract let us hear from Chris Killip, talking not about himself but the work of a fellow photographer. In a review of the exhibition A Shimmer of Possibility by Paul Graham (MoMA, New York 2009), Killip described a brief sequence of a woman sitting alone:

She is eating a take-out meal, perhaps a pig’s foot or hock, from a polystyrene container. This meal is balanced on a plastic carrier bag, which acts as a napkin on her knee to protect her white skirt. Her hair is a strange artificially orange color. On the ground in front of her are other previously discarded containers. In this first and largest image she is intent on eating her meal and takes no notice of Graham’s camera. The next image is solely of her food and, by now, greasy hands. Two similar smaller photographs follow, taken from very slightly different angles, looking down at the debris-strewn ground. The final image shows the woman as she inhales hard on a cigarette at the end of her meal. These brief unscripted moments of her immediate circumstances bring a paradoxical sense of separation and distance, completely contradicting the closeness of the images, making it, for me, part of an overwhelming sense of estrangement. If this is the status quo, then I want to change it.[7]

It is a fascinating passage of writing not least because it shows how a commitment to photography is a commitment to the world it depicts, to the act of depiction and to the precariousness of reading photographs carefully. Killip sees in Graham this search for form that has nothing to do with novelty. It is driven by the need to describe an encounter, to articulate something of its emotional and political significance. The paradox of intimacy and distance, of vision and knowledge, is a particularly photographic one. Every photographer must face sooner or later. The key image of Graham’s sequence recalls Killip’s own Woman at bus stop, Middlesborough, Teeside, 1976. Here too the photographer was close enough to disclose something of the woman and her situation, yet the nearness to a soul so self-absorbed is unnerving. The image invites us in but suspends our response. There is no caption that presumes to reveal her inner psychology. Instead the photograph is a drama between visible facts and the facts of life.

In the most rewarding and probing bodies of photographic work images are put in relation to each other so that the unanswered questions enrich each other. In Creative Camera magazine, May 1977, Woman at Bus Stop appears on the final spread of a bold twenty-two page sequence of Killip’s photographs from the north east of England.[8] It is paired with an image of civic robes on public display, taken in Tyneside in 1975. Suddenly the woman resembles a costume standing in for her absent self. Her pearl broach gleaming in the harsh sunlight echoes and contrasts with the metallic braid on one of the robes, caught by the camera flash. In Killip’s book In Flagrante (1988) she sits on a page opposite a photograph of a man in heavy boots and overcoat, perched on a low wall, cropped from the waist down. We might be led to think about matters of gender and dress, of fabric and light, of work and the human body, of pride and pragmatism. In the book you are holding she appears again, this time beside another man in coat and shoes resting in a doorway.[9] They face in opposite directions, like a couple estranged by mutual circumstance. These pairings have their own associations but they can never close the gap they ask us to contemplate. In the end each image is the guardian of the other’s secrets.

This high-wire act of disclosure and withdrawal produces the restlessness that has kept Killip’s photographs and books so vital all these years. But it has also been the source of some misunderstanding. The cursory speed and passivity with which audiences have been encouraged to respond to photographs in recent decades has given rise to hasty assessments. The problem is compounded by Killip’s gift for formal rigour and dense allusion. Whenever I come across one of his better-known photographs singled out and cut off from its body of work, I must confess I feel uneasy. It is too tempting to misread it as an icon or symbol of the social situation it depicts, rather than as a photographic response to it. Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, UK, 1976 is often celebrated as a condensed summary of Britain’s slide toward the divisive social and economic policies of the 1980s. Some even overlook the date and presume it somehow must be an image from Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing reign over British politics (she came to power in 1979). But what I see is an image that could be that but might not be. The space of doubt opened up by a powerful single photograph may be foreclosed by the temptation to simplify.[10]

This is not a new problem but it is a persistent one. It has been faced in different ways by photographers struggling to give appropriate shape to their work while maintaining the openness that is the necessary condition of possibility. In the 1930s Bill Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, to the deeply unconscious ways the English inhabited their social roles and class structure.  To him the English were strange and he photographed them with a dreamlike sensibility at once detached and emotionally charged. In their anthropological reserve his photographs court a documentary reading but they estrange and exceed it, somewhere between facts clearly stated and what John Grierson called “the creative treatment of actuality.”[11] His book The English at Home (1936) is full of striking images but it is the edit dramatizing distinctions of social class that was insidious, so potentially scandalous. But on publication it made little impact, was remaindered and all but vanished.[12] In the decades since it has come to stand for the complexities of the documentary project in general, with its balance of surgical record and subjective ‘vision’.

Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938) opened with an image of a commercial photo studio followed by a grid of anonymous portraits. The sequence unfolded in bold leaps of allusion, each image presented as both an autonomous statement and an associative link. An art-political poem. For those patient enough to notice, this was a book of photography, of a world already saturated with photographs. To make sense of it one would need to temper its description of 1930s America with the knowledge that all photographs, and all arrangements of photographs, are acts of interpretation requiring further interpretation.[13] Evans’s collaboration with the writer James Agee, Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941), went even further. The uncaptioned photographs of Alabama tenant farmers stood quite apart from Agee’s searing, self-reflexive text. The reader had to find a way of either putting them together or comprehending their separateness. It sold just a few hundred copies and was only hailed a classic of experimental documentary twenty years later. We may wish to think of these books and others such as August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time, 1929) or Eugène Atget: Photographe de Paris (1930) as typical of their time. They were not. They were quite exceptional.

Chris Killip’s books have been similarly out of step, both in theme and form. His first, Isle of Man, was somewhat classical in structure, comparable in many respects to a great realist novel or one of Paul Strand’s studies of place, such as Un Paese (1955) on a rural Italian village, or Tir a’Mhurain, on life in the Outer Hebrides (1962). But its appearance in 1980, several years after completion, compounded its untimeliness. When he came to publish In Flagrante (1988) he was much more aware of the problems of readability and turned these to advantage. The sequence, one of the most sophisticated and enigmatic of all postwar photobooks, begins and ends with shots that include the shadow of the photographer’s body and bulky 4×5 camera. To this he added a cautionary epigram ending with a memorable couplet: “The photographs tell you more about me than about what they describe. The book is a fiction about metaphor.”[14] The desire to keep things open was an expression of his humility and our forever-partial understanding. But it was also informed by a politics of representation: the last thing required by the people he photographed was a book that proposed to lock them into their situation as willingly as had the society that was making their lives so difficult. Killip’s openness was a rejection of the social fatalism that infected both the documentary form and government policy. It was a sign of hope.

At the Pirelli tire factory in 1989, Killip restated his commitment to the world of work, making intense portraits of gravity and grace. This at a time when most photographers of his generation shunned blue collar manufacturing to focus on the colorful, amnesiac world of consumerism, leisure and the service industries. If the Pirelli work was out of time then, it was even more so when the book was published seventeen years later.[15] But Killip had come to embrace this untimeliness, perhaps as a sign of what he had realised so early. Good work belongs to all eras and can guarantee no particular affinity to the moment it was made. In the early 1980s he had photographed extensively on the beach at Lynemouth in Northumberland. For periods he lived there with the people who gathered coal that washed up on the shore. Several of these remarkable images appeared in In Flagrante but the full extent of the project became evident only with the book published in 2011.[16] Nearly thirty years on the images are more poignant, obviously. But the intensity of seeing, the depth of human understanding and the virtuoso photography were as uniquely unexpected then as they are now.

When I met with Chris Killip to talk about his life and work, he was returning from one of his regular visits to meet up with people he has photographed. The Seacoal book had just been published and it was fresh on his mind. He talked of the past feeling both very near and very far away, and how important it is to trace the developments that bind now to then. But we agreed that at its best photography pulls us close and pushes us away, answering some questions, asking others. There is much to be said for being not quite of one’s time. What made Chris Killip’s work difficult to grasp when it was contemporary will only prolong its afterlife.

[1] Killip’s first published work, two 35mm shots taken in London, appeared in Creative Camera (London), February 1970 under the title ‘Young Contemporary’. He also published in Camera Mainichi (Japan) and Camera (Switzerland) among others.

[2] In 1985 the London’s Serpentine Gallery presented the landmark exhibition Another Country. Photographs by Chris Killip and Graham Smith.

[3] Chris Killip in Clive Dilnot, ‘Chris Killip’s Portraits of the Pirelli Workforce’, in Chris Killip, Pirelli Work (Steidl, Göttingen 2009) p. 72.

[4] Shoji Yamagishi, ‘Chris Killip. On the Isle of Man’ Camera Mainichi, November 1971.

[5] In the UK the critique was led by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the journals Screen, Screen Education and later Ten8.

[6] Daniel Longwell, an executive editor of Life once exclaimed: “The quick nervousness of pictures is a new language”. This is what John Tagg describes as “those dreams of transparency, efficiency, and accelerated exchange that marked the instrumentalization of photographic meaning, in social administration as in commercialized communications, in the documentary archive as in the photojournalistic picture file.” See John Tagg, ‘Melancholy Realism: Walker Evans’s Resistance to Meaning’ (2003), The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning(University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London 2009) p. 96

[7] Killip’s occasional writing is invaluable. He has published short but insightful texts on the work of Marketa Luskacova, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Goldblatt, Boris Mikhailov and Walker Evans, among others. Like Evans, who also published occasional writings on photographers, Killip illuminates the work he admires and tells us something important about his own.

[8] Creative Camera was the most significant outlet for serious photography in the UK. When the whole of the May 1977 issue was given over to Killip’s project the impact on several photographers, including Martin Parr, was profound.

[9] Although this book is an overview Killip has approached the sequencing with the same searching rigour and suggestive allusion that are hallmarks of all his publications.

[10] I first raised this point in a short text I wrote on Chris Killip’s work for Photoworks (Brighton, UK) no. 12 Spring/Summer 2009.

[11] John Grierson, Grierson on Documentary (Collins, London, 1946)

[12] In the last few decades The English at Home has come to be regarded as a classic work, not least because it is tempting to project onto its uneasy restraint a mood of premonition. With hindsight we can see a portrayal of the insular English unable to recognise their own image when they see it, sleepwalking towards the nightmare of the Second World War to be awoken all too close to disaster. Its failure “almost attests to its originality” (Mark Haworth-Booth in Bill Brandt: Behind the Camera, photographs 1928-1983, Aperture / Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1985, p. 12). Mark Haworth-Booth was also responsible for exhibiting the Pirelli work in 1990 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

[13] Evans was already wary of the popular illustrated press but was not prepared to give up on it entirely. Back in 1937, when Life magazine just a year old, he and James Agee proposed a subsection be devolved to them. As editorial advisors they would provide a space for experimental forms of journalistic writing along with a visual approach devoid of what Agee called “all ‘art’ and ‘dramatic’ photography and of the plethoric and flabby ends of Leica photography”. They asked for an office and $100 a week each, promising to take care of everything from commissioning to page layout. Life declined but the desire to carve out an independent space within mainstream culture never left Evans. His self-assigned, fiercely independent work made for Fortune (1945-65) is a testament to this.

[14] On the genesis of In Flagrante Chris Killip has stated: I was approached by David Godwin who was then the boss of Secker & Warburg. He said he liked my work and if I ever wanted to publish a book he would like to do it. I came to see him one year after that initial contact and said yes, I did want to do a book but I wanted to work with a particular editor, Mark Holborn. Mark had just returned, rather exhausted, from his stint at Aperture. He had also during his NY time edited Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 1986). I wanted to work with someone who had been exposed to the best current work that was out there. I was living in Newcastle more or less in isolation and thought that any book that I did would benefit from Mark’s experiences. I told Godwin that he would have to pay Mark for his work and we would work together and, when it was ready, bring the sequenced book to him. Godwin could then only say one of two words: Yes or No.

I laid out the book in Newcastle and then came down to Mark Holborn’s London house and he would challenge me on things in the layout. It was often very tense but we never fell out. I would return to Newcastle and come back after making changes. There was usually something like a three-week interval and the process took nearly six months so I suppose there were about ten meetings. Godwin saw the book and agreed to do it and Peter Dyer, Secker & Warburg’s designer, did the design/ typeface,  etc . I also stopped Godwin from sending any press copies to anyone in photography and asked him to only send copies to his normal literary reviewers. That was a good decision as Blake Morrison who reviewed poetry for The Observer (London) wrote a very good and influential review. Chris Killip, email to the author, September 28, 2011. For additional information see ‘Dispatches from a War Zone’ in Jeffrey Ladd, ed., Chris Killip. In Flagrante (Errata Editions, New York, 2008).

[15] Coincidentally seventeen years is the same delay between Walker Evans’s photographing of faces looming from the darkness of the New York subway and their first appearance in print. See Walker Evans, ‘Rapid Transit’ in i.e. The Cambridge Review no. 5, Winter 1955, pp. 16-24. Text by James Agee. For a brilliant discussion of the ‘untimeliness’ of Killip’s Pirelli project see Clive Dilnot, ‘Chris Killip’s Portraits of the Pirelli Workforce’, in Chris Killip, Pirelli Work (Steidl, Göttingen 2009) pp. 65-85.

[16] Killip exhibited some of the Seacoal photographs at Side Gallery in 1984.




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