Chris Killip might not be as well known as Martin Parr or have the cult kudos of Tony Ray-Jones, but the work he produced in the 1970s and ’80s arguably stands above either of them. Killip was born on the Isle of Man and returned there after quitting commercial photography in the early 1970s to concentrate on the communities he grew up amongst. It still looks like the 1930s: men till fields with horses, stone walls grid the landscape under glowering skies. Killip’s portraits are full of dignity and empathy for the relentless bleak toil of these people’s lives. It would be a fine body of work in itself, but it’s what comes next that makes this show so vital.
Taking his cues from the changes he saw happening to the traditional Manx way of life, Killip started exploring other disintegrating communities in the north of England: Tyne shipbuilders, steelworkers in Yorkshire and seacoal scavengers on the Northumbrian coast. The prow of gigantic oil tanker Tyne Pride appears suddenly and surreally at the end of a glum terraced street as children play in its shadow. But the ship’s buyer fell through, and when Killip returns two years later, the shipyard is gone and the street is being demolished.
The overriding emotion here is tenderness
There’s a fascinating taxonomy of dress in these photos that speaks its own language of deprivation and necessity: a woman picking coal off a wintry beach wearing a ‘very good fur coat’ or an old man dozing on a bench, his trousers held up with a WWII German army belt, presumably a war souvenir. Everyone wears Doc Marten boots. They go from functional industrial wear to punk-rebellion wear within a few years. The children have the hand-me-downs. A youth curls up on a wall wearing a pair of six-hole ‘Police issue’ Docs. His head is shaved to the scalp. He looks like a camp survivor.
Killip isn’t brutal for brutality’s sake. If anything, the overriding emotion here is tenderness coupled with a certain discreet awe that people want to continue, to strive, to live. That’s the real power of this show. Whether it’s gangs of glue-sniffers or burly men trying to get a rare ray of seaside sunshine, the people that Killip portrays, and the landscapes they inhabit, are always shockingly, immediately alive, full of interest and possibility. Possibility that they are always denied, except through Killip’s photography.