Chris Killip (1946–2020) is primarily known for his photographs of Northern England in the 1970s and 1980s, which capture communities affected by the decline of heavy industry, and the social deprivation that followed. If the aim of a retrospective is to survey key influences and periods in an artist’s career, then the exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, conveys to its local audience that the people of Tyneside are still at the heart of Killip’s creative legacy. The exhibition is broadly chronological, beginning with early photographs of his native Isle of Man from the early 1970s, before focusing on depictions of the urban and coastal communities of the North East, including those first published in his photobook In Flagrante (1988). The exhibition comprises 150 objects: mostly black-and-white photographs, alongside book maquettes, catalogues and ephemera. Killip was involved in the organisation of the retrospective, which was first shown at the Photographer’s Gallery, London (TPG; 7th October 2022–19th February 2023), and printed almost all the photographs himself before he died. The preoccupation with place in Killip’s life and work is evident in the individual exhibitions as well as the dialogue between the two, which exist at opposite ends of the North–South divide.
Although Killip has had major solo exhibitions at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and Museum Folkwang, Essen, this is his first retrospective in the United Kingdom.1 According to the scholar Clive Dilnot, this may be related to his ‘uncompromising stance towards his subject matter’ and unwillingness to erase the political realities of his subjects through a transformation into ‘art’.2 Such erasure would be unlikely in BALTIC’s ground floor gallery: the low-ceilinged room in the former industrial building echoes with murmurs of recognition as visitors spot familiar locations in the photographs. At TPG the display lined two narrow upper galleries overlooking offices near Oxford Street and was shown concurrently with the exhibition An Alternative History of Photography, a group of works drawn from the Solander Collection, which has a particular emphasis on international traditions and under-represented and women artists.3 This context provided a more distanced, art-historical framing of Killip’s work, which suggested a curiosity for the imaging of ‘othered’ cultures – the ‘other’ here being the Northern working class. By contrast, the presentation at BALTIC raises different historical and sociological questions through its geographical proximity to the people and places it documents.4
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted by lesser-known landscapes from Killip’s return to the Isle of Man after working as a photographer’s assistant in London FIG.1. These photographs are unexpected, picturesque and technically accomplished: a windswept cottage flanked by bare trees; dust mites hovering above church pews; a village nestled in a stormy valley. Four portraits of Manx residents taken in 1971–72 could feasibly date from several decades earlier, for their dress and rustic backdrops, as well as the works’ affinity with Walker Evans, whose images Killip encountered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1969. In an arresting photograph of a young woman, Catherine Garrett, Ballacubbon (1972), her curls are depicted with such fine tones of greys that one can almost imagine the strawberry blonde colour through the monochrome. She leans against a lichen-covered wall with a wary half-smile, face turned towards the camera, but not quite meeting its gaze. She clutches a piece of wire, the sharp tip of which presses into her ribbed jumper, recalling – in explicit terms – Roland Barthes’s concept of the punctum.5
Killip’s photographs have often been described as ‘timeless’6 and indeed they have enduring market appeal.7 However, it would be more apt to characterise them as existing outside of the linear trudge of time. Although the Manx photographs may seem anachronistic, when the exhibition turns to the North East, there is a palpable, political inertia: people sit at bus stops; lonely, condemned houses await demolition; seasons change and the shipbuilding industry disappears from multiple pictures of the same view of Gerald Street FIG.2. In the Seacoal Camp at Lynemouth, Northumberland, a boy lies on an enormous pile of coal FIG.3.8 The coal dominates the composition, glistening with damp, as the bored youth props himself up on his elbow, indifferent to the hard, lumpy chill. Killip’s subjects are either waiting for work or waiting for it to end. It is hard to imagine a future from this point of stasis, even as the future is exactly where the visitor stands.9
In viewing Killip’s works in this format, the most noticeable creative development lies in relation to the people he photographed. In earlier works, he addresses subjects, such as Catherine Garrett, as though in conversation. Following Killip’s return to England in 1972, the photographer instead becomes an outsider, observing from across the street, his subjects unseeing or uncaring. This can lead to occasional unsettling moments when viewing his work, given how closely he appears to take somebody’s photograph without their knowledge FIG.4. Moreover, locals have not always been thrilled with the press resulting from his photographs.10 However, the exhibition and catalogue, most notably the tribute from his former student Gregory Halpern, work hard to counteract a power imbalance by portraying Killip as a thoughtful and diligent photographer with deep respect for those he photographed.11
This is evident in the most prominent projects in the main gallery: Killip’s work with the of seacoalers in Lynemouth and the fishermen of Skinningrove in North Yorkshire, where the photographer-subject relationship becomes more prolonged and personal. The village of Skinningrove was struck with mass unemployment by the closure of an iron and steel plant, leading to the risky work of inshore fishing.12 Killip’s physical closeness to the young men of Skinningrove in unguarded moments of ennui implicates him – and his camera – as a familiar, trusted presence FIG.5. Particularly memorable is Simon Coultas being taken to sea for the first time since his father David drowned (1983), an image of a forlorn boy framed in the bow of a boat. His eyes are puffy from crying, and his smart Sunday best jars with the wildness of the water. One wonders how Killip came to join the family on this emotional outing, and whether Simon is dressed for the camera or the funeral. Killip was unsure of how to present the intimate Skinningrove photographs with appropriate regard for those depicted. As such, they mostly existed in the albums he made for bereaved families of drowned men and were largely unpublished until 2017. Here, the skill of Killip’s art extends beyond photographic ability to building a nuanced relationship with a disenfranchised community.
In his preface to In Flagrante Killip described the people depicted as facing ‘the reality of de-industrialisation in a system which regards their lives as disposable’.13 The passivity of waiting transitions into wanting in the final section of exhibition, which focuses on this project and surveys time spent out of work, in leisure, or the lack of. Here the photographer again retreats into anonymity, with a louder sense of his artistic agency in the subjective, although unsentimental, editing. There is an unsettling absence of merriment among beach-goers, children playing FIG.6, street parties and the miner’s gala. More bus queues, more derelict housing and punks thrashing in anguished abandon FIG.7. The symbolism of the exhibition’s red feature walls extends beyond the colour’s political connotations into other emotional intensities, such as desire and rage, in a region where present-day artists and arts organisations are increasingly filling gaps left by shrinking social services.14 Only a week after the exhibition opened, Side Gallery – where Killip was Director from 1977–79 – closed indefinitely due to lack of funding.
The curation of the retrospective is subtle and, overall, plays a subordinate role to the communicative power of the photographs, however it is a shame that non-reflective museum glass was not used. When many of these works have primarily been experienced in the uninterrupted pages of photobooks, the shiny surface can be an obstruction to the dense black detail of the prints. The reflections in the glass can also enforce the viewer’s position as a spectator, with unforeseen tension: like Killip, they may be an outsider looking in. More generally, for visitors already familiar with Killip, this is not an exhibition of revelation or distinction, but one that consolidates his most prolific periods and reaffirms the startling and sensitive aspects of his photography. In particular, the return of In Flagrante to Tyneside draws urgent, if unacknowledged, comparisons between the dispassionate socioeconomic policies affecting the North East then and now. John Berger’s assessment in his contribution to the photobook’s first edition still rings true: ‘in the sky, beyond every photograph, is reflected the blind indifference of individualism’.15