Thames and Hudson, 2023
256 pages / $75
By Michelle Bogre
Published April 2023
The book opens with two softly lit, full bleed head and shoulder portraits of a young brother and sister. The faces stare back at us, one (four-year old Chris), with a slight smile, a hint of rascal, open with possibility. The other, (five-year old Anthean) is already set, tinged with sadness, maybe a bit of anger, resigned to a life without possibilities. It is impossible not to wonder what happened to them.
This begins our journey through Chris Killip, the aptly titled monograph of one of Britain’s most important, but least well known, documentary photographers. Killip’s black and white images, a mix of portraiture and candid reportage, are an empathetic rendering of working class life in 1970s and 1980s Britain when jobs disappeared and communities were destroyed by gentrification and then a spiral into poverty.
The book is divided into four chapters that roughly mirror Killip’s main projects: work from the Isle of Man; the Edgelands, which included projects from Askam, Skinninggrove and the seacoalers from Lynemouth; the North Country; and The Last Stories, a hodgepodge of work made later in Killip’s life. Each section features an essay either about Killip or his work.
Killip’s images do what traditional documentary photography does best: create an origami of time as past present and future converge and unfold like warped spacetime. He describes photographs as “a chronicle of a death foretold’ and that awareness is clear in his photographs. It is not only the death of the person, but the death of a way of life. These are people to whom history happened.
Cookie in the snow, Seacoal Camp, Northumbria, 1984 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos
Killip photographed with a large format camera, not the traditional 35mm of his peers. The detail and expanded tonality from a large negative, while not so apparent in the book, is on display in the amazing retrospective and traveling exhibit at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, curated by Ken Grant and Tracy Marshall-Grant. (The book is an expanded exhibition catalogue.) The prints are exquisite and proof that whenever possible we need to see photographs on the wall.
In part because Killip was not shooting with a 35mm camera, his work is quintessential slow documentary. The simple act of setting up a bulky camera on a tripod creates a performative space for the subject and photographer. Often, we characterize portraits as either mirroring the subject or revealing the photographer. His do both. Also, these are not extractive images. Killip knows the people and places and because of that we know them and him. The photographs are familiar and intimate, and you sense that Killip would return to visit these people without his camera.
A lot of current debate in the documentary world swirls around the idea of insider versus outsider or who should be allowed to photograph whom. Killip’s images tilt towards the value of being an insider or being willing to stay long enough to become one. While clearly an insider for the photographs he took on the Isle of Man (where he grew up), he became an insider for his other projects through persistence.
For example, in his project on the seacoalers, (men who make their living by driving horse-drawn carts to collect and sell coal washed up on beaches when the tide recedes), he was chased off several times until a serendipitous meeting at a local pub with a man he had previously photographed gave him a slight inside edge. Still he didn’t feel he understood the seacoalers well enough, so he bought a caravan and parked it on the beach at Lynemouth so he would have a sense of the rhythm of the place, and to better understand these men, he often invited them into his warm caravan for tea.
This is very slow photography indeed and because of that he makes the random, accidental, and fragmentary details of everyday existence meaningful while preserving the actual details of the scene. Killip’s image, “Cookie in the snow, 1984” —only possible because he was living in the caravan—features “Cookie” looking like a black apparition, leaning into the wind and snow carrying a bag (maybe of coal). The image is so visceral we feel what a bone-weary job Cookie has.
If the book has a weakness, it is the editing and design. Less is more, but not in this book. Trying to include too many photographs, while understandable for a retrospective, forces a design of often cramming too many small images on a page, which doesn’t do any of them justice, or the odd choice of always staggering two vertical images per page, which creates a checkboard pattern. The design works best with one image per page, large enough for us to get lost in the details of a large negative.