Chris Killipby Adam Bell
Isle of Man Revisited (Steidl, 2015)
In Flagrante Two (Steidl, 2016)
Pirelli Work (Steidl, 2006/2015)
Seacoal (Steidl, 2011/2015)
Eloquently balancing hope and somber despair, Chris Killip’s large-format black-and-white work grapples with the fragility and strength of community in the face of economic change, governmental indifference, and outright hostility. A humanist photographer in the classic sense, Killip was born in 1946 on the Isle of Man; he began seriously photographing in the early 1970s, embarking on several long-term projects chronicling the rapid deindustrialization of the northern regions of the United Kingdom. As Killip recently noted, he became a “chronicler of the ‘De-Industrial Revolution’ in Britain,” documenting the country’s economic collapse in such celebrated photobooks as In Flagrante and the more recent Seacoal. Either long out of print or largely unavailable, almost all of Killip’s books—which also include Isle of Man and Pirelli Work—have been reissued by Steidl, in an important recognition of the artist’s contributions to the form.
Deeply indebted to such modern photographers as Paul Strand and Walker Evans, Killip has long rejected the skepticism of post-modernism and remains staunchly committed to the subjective truth-telling capacities of the lens. At once descriptive and metaphoric, Killip’s empathetic, politically charged work has lost little of its power or bite over the years. His photography asks important questions, not only about what the lens can reveal about history, but also about how it can connect us in meaningful ways to the past, present, and each other.
Originally released in 1980, the photographs in Isle of Man: A Book about the Manx, (the new edition from Steidl is called Isle of Man Revisited) were taken in the early ’70s, while Killip worked for his father in the family pub. Mixing environmental portraits and landscapes, the work was partially inspired by a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in 1969, where Killip first encountered Evans and Strand. He eventually drifted more toward Evans’s restrained politics and visual sophistication, but these early photographs closely resemble Strand’s classic photobooks from the ’50s and ’60s, namely Un Paese (1955), which looked at a small Italian village, and Tir A’Mhurain (1968), which focused on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Simply designed, Isle of Man is a nostalgia-tinged record of an idyllic rural world and community that were slowly vanishing. Elegantly paced and rhetorically complex, the book carefully weaves together, and draws connections between, the somber but elegant black-and-white portraits of farmers, workers, and fishermen and landscapes of the small island. At the time, the island was in the process of becoming a tax haven, foreign money was flooding in, and the fiercely independent Manx (as the locals are known) were being pushed out, along with their traditions and customs. Despite the work’s romanticizing tone, the men and women stare back at the viewer with guarded expressions, perhaps wary of both Killip’s inquisitive lens and the dramatic changes that loom on the horizon. As with many of his subsequent projects, Killip spent several years photographing and befriending his subjects, ultimately creating an empathetic portrait of a community intimately tied to the land.
Following the Isle of Man work, Killip moved to Northern England, where he helped found and run Side Gallery in 1977, and began the projects that eventually found their place in his greatest collection, In Flagrante (1988). Steidl’s new edition is a significant alteration of the original publication (hence the new title, In Flagrante Two). The book includes two new images, and both the images and book have been enlarged. The printing is much improved from the original, and each image now receives its own spread. The book also dispenses with its two original texts—a joint essay by John Berger and Sylvia Grant and a short text by Killip. In their place, Killip concludes the book with a spare list of the prime ministers in power during the project’s creation; this replacement of the original texts’ oblique commentary enhances the work’s ambiguity, letting the images speak for themselves.
Comprising images taken between 1973 and 1985, In Flagrante is about a society coming apart at the seams. Cinematic in scope and tone, the book unfolds against a backdrop of mass unemployment, violent strikes, and punitive cutbacks to the country’s social welfare programs. Killip doesn’t aim for objectivity—indeed, he does not believe any such thing is possible. Instead, he offers his subjective impressions in service of a reality that was undeniable to him, and to many who lived in England at the time. The book practically boils with rage. In one of its most famous images, a scrum of skinheads moshing at a miners’ benefit concert forms a tightly coiled knot, seemingly ready to explode. A newly included image features a group of children standing on a wall in front of a cluster of dilapidated council houses, with graffiti behind them reading, “Bobby Sands, Greedy Irish Pig” and “Smash the IRA.” Taken right after Sands died from his hunger strike in a staunchly Protestant neighborhood, the image illustrates how suffering and bigotry mark the landscape, in full view of the next generation.
Throughout the book, bleak and tense moments are tempered by hope or quiet beauty: a lone girl plays with a hula hoop on a desolate beach, a young man plays listlessly with a puppy in a trailer, and the words “true love” are drawn on the brick wall of a litter-filled avenue. Demolished outright or left to fall into ruin in the wake of deindustrialization, all of Northern England seems to teeter on the brink. Streets that appear clean in one image reappear almost unrecognizably in another, strewn with rubble and trash, as though they’d been bombed or shelled. Young men gather on the beach to huff glue or stand anxiously and bored, waiting for something to happen.
Killip insists the work should not be reduced to a critique of the Thatcher years, but it is impossible to entirely divorce it from the dramatic changes her policies had on the industrial communities of Northern England; it may even be interpreted as a direct rebuke to her cold declaration that “there is no such thing as society.” If anything, Killip’s disavowal is an effort to broaden his indictment beyond Thatcher’s reign, connecting the past and present, and expanding the work’s metaphoric scope. This is the main reason for the textual revisions in the new edition. For Killip, this isn’t just history. The crippling policies that stripped workers of their rights, along with the legislation that forced the closure of factories and mines began long before Thatcher took office, continued after she left, and are still happening now, albeit in new ways. Nearly twenty-eight years old, the book speaks presciently to the crushing poverty and disenfranchisement of today’s working class.
Completed around the same time as In Flagrante, Seacoal was not released as a completed project and book until 2011. Shot along the coast of Northumberland in the ’80s, its dark and somber pictures, some of which are also included in In Flagrante, document the working-class families that earned a living collecting the scraps of coal that washed ashore from the nearby coastal mines. What distinguishes Seacoal most notably from In Flagrante is its intimacy, its narrower scope focusing on creating a portrait of an insular community living on the fringe. Alongside desolate, cloud-filled images of men and women hard at work are moments of tenderness. Families huddle affectionately inside their trailers; children on the beach play with whatever they can get their hands on—including empty fertilizer sacks that two boys wear as makeshift tunics.
Like many projects before and after where he spent years with his subjects, Seacoal is a testament to Killip’s stubborn determination. At first, the men working the beach were convinced he was a government spy sent to gather evidence and throw them off the dole, and they aggressively rebuffed his first efforts to photograph the area. But Killip returned year after year, and was finally granted access when he ran into an acquaintance who vouched for him and became his confidant; once accepted, he stayed for over a year, living and photographing the families that foraged and lived off the coal.
In 1989, following the publication of In Flagrante, the Pirelli corporation commissioned Killip to make pictures in their U.K. tire factory. Pirelli Work (2006/2015), which, like Seacoal, is available as an unrevised reprint, is the result of that commission. Shot with meticulously placed strobes in the dark factory, the collection shows workers hunched over heavy machines, encircled by steel, and shrouded in darkness. Staring and working with fixed concentration, the workers are bathed in beatific Caravaggio-esque light; imparting their tough, dirty work with dignity despite what otherwise feels like an oppressive environment. As Killip later stated, “The workplace had become, in a real sense for me, a theater [. . .] I embraced the look of these new photographs with their relation to fashion, film noir, and even Soviet Realism. For me this ‘look’ seemed a more telling way to record and document this enforced ritual.”
The work, commissioned by a Pirelli manager who admired the politically charged In Flagrante, balances its respect for the workers with a measured, critical take on the factory. This is no corporate report, and Killip doesn’t toe the company line. There are no cheery faces, no celebratory pictures of finished tires or completed quotas—just hard, daily work. The book even concludes with a pointed image of managers sitting aloofly in a drab office, safely removed from—and deliberately contrasted with—the hard work below. Although Killip’s last body of work, Here Comes Everybody, was published in 2009 and contains images taken of annual pilgrimages in Western Ireland from the early 1990s and 2000s, Pirelli Work represents one of the last times he worked extensively in England before moving to the United States to teach at Harvard, where he has remained since.
In 2001, the noted essayist and photographer Gerry Badger rightly identified the central theme of Killip’s work as community. Yet his work has greater importance than a simple reassertion of communal ties in the face of hardship, through collective activity, or by mere location. If his work has continued relevance, it is also in its assertion of the documentary genre, which, however flawed, can make visible the realities and injustices of the world in poetic and powerful ways. In the original edition of In Flagrante, Killip wrote that his work was a “fiction about metaphor.” Removed from the new edition, this coy and gnomic statement underlied Killip’s misgivings about the assumed objectivity of documentary work, offering important clues about what truths he felt photography could provide. As Kaja Silverman recently argued, photography is the flawed and partial way in which the world discloses itself to us. Never a simple index, it’s an analogy. Despite Killip’s dedication to the truths the lens can provide, he has always acknowledged its underlying fiction and subjectivity. Photographs provide partial answers, but also ask questions, forcing us to look closer at the world we live in, the people around us, and the ties that bind us.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.