For those written out of official history

Chris Killip’s working-class photography exhibition

The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramilles Street, London W1F 7LW, to 19 February.

£8 admission, £5 concessions, £6.50/£4 online advance booking, every Friday free from 5pm.

This exhibition will also be at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, from 20 May.

Reviewed by Dave Beale

Work and the lack of it impose a hard and bitter toll on working-class communities. This was particularly so in the era of Margaret Thatcher, and it’s these years and these communities that the photographs of Chris Killip capture with such power and impact. A new exhibition and book celebrate his work.

Shot in black and white, mostly with medium and large-format film cameras, Killip’s photographs couldn’t be more relevant in the context of today’s cost-of-living and economic crisis.

Chris Killip established himself as one of the UK’s most influential and important post-second world war documentary photographers. Sadly, he died in 2020. Two retrospective exhibitions and books of Killip’s work were launched in 2022, in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

Killip was born in the Isle of Man in 1946. He left school at 16 to train as a hotel manager and discovered photography by chance when looking at a copy of Paris Match for press coverage of cycling. There he saw a photograph by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and immediately wanted to become a photographer – even though he didn’t have a camera at the time!

Killip worked initially as a photographer’s assistant in London. But after seeing the photographic collection in the Museum of Modern Art whilst on a trip to New York, his vision of who he wanted to photograph and how began to take off.

He returned to the Isle of Man and some of the portraits he took as a result still stand out today as honest and dignified pictures of hard-working people. With his subjects looking straight at the camera and having some control over how they wanted to be photographed, it’s clear he took his time in taking these and gave his subjects, many of whom he already knew, the respect they deserved.

An Arts Council commission and further documentary projects followed, but his work took a major step forward when he moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975. For quite some years he documented North East working-class communities, and the savage impact of Thatcher’s policies and the brutalities of capitalism as they stripped away the old shipbuilding and coalmining industries and the long-established ways of earning a living.

But Killip’s approach was always to identify and give respect to those he photographed. He lived within and became a part of the communities he recorded, never patronising his subjects. As a result, he has provided an outstanding account – a genuine visual history – of workers, their families and their communities forced to the edge of existence in the Thatcher era.

As his work in this 1975-90 period shows, his portraits are not isolated from their environment. Their context is clear in the images. We see housing estates, streets cheek by jowl with polluting industry, Wallsend shipyard, some derelict streets, and families relaxing at the beach. Chris Killip also did many outstanding photographs of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, especially in Easington, County Durham. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill presented him with a miners’ lamp for his service during the strike.

I think four particular projects of Killip’s work stand out in this period. In 1976 he started his ‘Seacoal’ project, focused on Lynemouth in Northumberland. Here men, women and their families collect coal swept up on the beach and live a harsh existence through dirty manual work, exposed to the rawness of the weather. With some similarities to the ‘Seacoal’ project, in 1982-84 he photographed the village at Skinningrove, which is tucked away on the Cleveland coast not far from Middlesborough. Skinningrove was a traditional fishing community industrialised by iron production, which ceased in the 1970s. As with the sea coal work at Lynemouth, people’s working lives here are hard and marginalised, whilst Killip is committed to bringing them centre stage. This was and probably still is quite an insular community, repeatedly exploited and cheated by those with power and money, and Killip knew he had to patiently win the trust of the community before he could begin making his photographs.

Another project from this key period is his record of chaotic scenes at The Station, a punk venue in Gateshead. This was done in the summer of 1985. And it’s youth culture – full on, raw, exhilarating and in your face! A brief window of escape, of respite from the storm, a chance to breath amidst the suffocation of Thatcherism. He said no one took the slightest bit of notice of him when he was taking the pictures, letting him photograph whatever he liked!

A fourth, quite different project, done outside the North East, was a commission for the Pirelli factory in Burton-upon-Trent in 1989.  Whilst here we have great photographs of workers in the context of their work, they are concentrating on the task at hand and not stopping to look at the camera. It’s a great piece of documentary photography of factory work in progress, with the fullest respect and recognition given to the workers themselves.

In 1989 Chris Killip received the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson Award for his work and, in 1991, to his great surprise, he was invited to be a visiting lecturer at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, USA. He was given a full lecturing post there in 1994 and retired from it in 2017.

He chose not to work as a photojournalist or for commercial enterprises, his work appearing in photo-books and galleries instead. From the early to mid-1990s he concentrated on photography, teaching and education, and organising and examining his extensive archive rather than taking further photographs. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are amongst many institutions globally that hold Killip’s work. His ground-breaking book, In Flagrante, was published in 1988, with an introduction co-authored by Marxist writer and art theorist John Berger. Over 20 publications of Killip’s work have come out altogether, many of those in the last ten years.

Chris Killip’s photographs are an intense and powerful record of what Thatcher and her ilk did to working-class communities. But they are not that alone. They speak loud and clear for workers and communities today ravaged by the policies of this squalid Tory government, by savage cuts and privatisation, by the rampant onslaught of big business and the capitalist system, and all in the absence of a credible working-class political alternative in parliament.

These photographs speak across the years so clearly about the poverty and exploitation experienced by so many right now. Photography can’t change the world, but at its best it can provide a visual language to add powerfully to what we write, what we say, and what we do in our efforts to end this brutal capitalist system and to fight for a genuinely democratic, socialist society.