If photography, like writing, is a tool that can be used to do politics, then Chris Killip (Isle of Man, 1946) would be the perfect opposite to Margaret Thatcher. Considered a key figure in postwar British documentary photography, Killip lived the photojournalism boom during the seventies, when his career was directed toward advertising and the commercial world. He hit the brakes then, reversed and turned to documentary photography. He returned to his hometown and began working in his father´s pub every night, while during the day he took pictures. Pictures of friends and relatives. To this period belongs the ‘Isle of Man’, perhaps the most personal of the series exhibited today in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
His talent was boosted by the support received from documentary photography during the 1970s in England, the emergence of showrooms, the birth of magazines and forums and the creation of the photograph committee Arts Council, the state agency for the English art development which commissioned him to contribute to an exhibition entitled Two View-Two Cities. In this exhibition, Killip presented the work made in a textile factory in Huddersfield (West Yorkshire, the place where everyone wants to live one day), a work that would, according to the photographer, increase his interest in the industrial working class in the north of England: an area essentially dedicated to heavy industry, coal mines, steel mills and shipyards. For years, this industry kept employing different generations, but their dismantling brought structural changes at the social level; the process of de-industrialization, the miners’ strikes, precariousness and unemployment inspired then and later on the storyline of the photographer.
And perhaps it is in the ‘Northeast’ where his commitment is best reflected. Killip came to Newcastle with a two-year scholarship, but he stayed there for sixteen years. Sixteen years in Newcastle, and not during its best years. He befriended people and internalized the environment. Then he made a record of it. Youngsters sniffing glue, people living next to a coal mine, housing estates, burned homes, boredom, bingos, dirt, demonstrations, shipyards, and bread queues. His work does not speak of a brave new world, no. ‘Skinningrove’ (another place to be) shows fishermen out of work, tired eyes due to the typical compulsory spare time and their non-future, and big shots celebrating the Queen´s jubilee. The working class in all its terrible scope. Punk parties in Sunderland, a village from the Middle Ages. Small and distant, like Lynemouth, a coastal town where miners take the coal from the sea on horseback. In ‘Shipyards’, held for 6 years along the River Tyne (Newcastle), Killip shows houses dwarfed by the vast size of the vessels that were built right nextdoor; the idea that life and work are the same. Perhaps for this reason, what is somewhat light, though eminently unpleasant, is the ‘Costa’ series, in which the English photographer tells us what constituted a working class holiday: going to the coast to spend a Sunday on cloudy beaches, sleeping or eating fish and chips.
In general, Killip’s photographs are pleasantly surprising for their closeness, but even more for their lack of involvement. The simplicity of some of the captured everyday scenes seems to be hiding its own symbolism; others are more startling. However, through the different series, the photographer manages to compress time and place, time and history, in all its dilapidated glory.