Chris Killip is a photographer who is deeply concerned with family and community. The roots of his anxiety run deep. Killip was born in 1946 in his father’s pub on the Isle of Man, a self-governing and fiercely independent island in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Neither English nor Irish, he belongs to an isolated and threatened group of people.
In 1964, after graduating from high school, Killip moved to London to work in commercial photography. All of this changed in 1969, when he visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw the photographs of Paul Strand and Walker Evans. Shortly afterwards, he returned to the Isle of Man to work for his father at night. During the day, he photographed the island and its inhabitants — many of whom he knew — as its way of life was being supplanted because it had become a tax haven for the wealthy. The result was the book, Isle of Man: A Book about the Manx (1980), which was recently reissued as Isle of Man Revisited (2015), with some images replaced and more added.
A later book, In Flagrante, was published in 1988, and has since gone out-of-print. Now retitled In Flagrante Two (2016), it has been reissued with three additional images. The entire series of 50 gelatin silver prints featured in the new book is the subject of Chris Killip: In Flagrante Two at Yossi Milo Gallery (January 28–February 27, 2016). According to the gallery press release:
[This] is the first time since 1988 that the series has been exhibited in its entirety and the first time ever in the United States.
I wonder if one reason why it has taken so long for Killip’s critically celebrated series to be shown in New York is the strong anti-humanist strain that began spreading throughout the art world in the 1970s.
According to this way of thinking, the documentary genre of photography, which can only pretend to be objective, is doomed to fail; the smart, educated viewer isn’t going to be seduced or manipulated. Sherrie Levine and others associated with the Pictures Generation further solidified this view by appropriating iconic documentary images. In a world where nothing is real, everything becomes a code. This is how the Metropolitan Museum describes Levine’s 1981 photograph of Walker Evans’ photograph, “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife” (1936), a close-up portrait of tight-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama sharecropper:
Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.
Why does the museum’s description remind me of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the inscription at the entrance to Hell?
Abandon hope all ye who enter here?
Is this the aesthetic hell we currently inhabit — touring renovated sections of Manhattan dotted with fashionable waterholes, where we can relax and talk turkey before scooting off to the next gallery opening to see the latest expression of our lost illusions and dashed hopes? Or is this anti-humanist attitude the most efficient way to embrace our profit driven, property-centered grind?
Killip’s problem is that he doesn’t accept that ideas are more important than people. This is the wall text that greeted me when I walked into Yossi Milo to see his exhibition:
One night in 1994 my American friend John Clifford, who owned the best bar in Cambridge, took me into the center of Boston to where the civic center and other administrative buildings now stand. These buildings were built in the 1960’s on top of the old tough working class district of Scollay Square, where John and his brothers were born and raised.
John pointed out to me streets that no longer existed, telling me who had lived where and in which house. Who had died in Vietnam, who had worked for the mob, who had gone to prison or ended up in politics. When I interrupted this narrative to tell him how great it was that he was telling me the history of this place, he spun around, gripped me by the throat and pushed me against the wall. With his raised fist clenched he said, “ I don’t know nothing about no f…ing history, I’m just telling you what happened”
Killip took the photographs with a large format camera between 1973 and ’85, mostly in the North East section of England, an industrial area undergoing cataclysmic change, where shipyards were retrenched and mines closed, leading to the Miner’s Strike of 1984. According to the poet Don Peterson, writing about Killip’s photographs:
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher punished the north for rejecting her party by refusing them any means of humane transition into a post-industrial world.
Killip lived in the North East and got to know the people and communities he documented, and wasn’t regarded as an interloper as he took his photographs. He must have taken thousands and thousands of them.
One change that Killip made to the reissue of In Flagrante was to get rid of the essays by John Berger and Sylvia Grant. The other was to remove his introduction, which included his assertion that the book was “a fiction about a metaphor.” I wonder if Killip wrote this anticipating that his work would be criticized for being humanist and therefore manipulative and other bad things. In the original edition of In Flagrante, Killip’s remark frames how we might see the photograph, “Len Tabner Painting, Skinningrove, N Yorkshire” (1983): Tabner, who is standing in front of an easel on a rocky beach on an overcast day, busily painting the cliff and sea. Shorn of Killip’s statement, might it not be possible to see Tabner, who is Killip’s surrogate, trying to do the impossible: depict a furiously changing world?
If portraiture was one of the models informing Walker Evans’s iconic photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs, it seems to me that the family album is one key to Killip’s photographs of the people of Skinningrove. In “Bever’s First Day Out, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire” (1982), Bevers — whose name is tattooed across the front of his neck — stands beside a car, his fly not zipped all the way, eyes closed and his head turned to get more sun. As the title conveys, Bevers has just gotten out of jail and on the way home he has parked the car on an incline, beside a weathered lobster shack, to feel the weather on his face. The man sitting in the passenger seat looks out, arms resting on the door. Another car is parked further up the incline. Behind them a gray sky and a slice of the sea is visible.
In “Glue Sniffers, Whitehaven, Cumbria” (1980), five young men are standing together on a beach, sniffing glue, and largely indifferent to Killip’s presence. The young man in the middle is facing the viewer, holding a plastic bag with one end tied in a knot, while the others — two to his right and one to his left — literally form a social circle in which he and the taller man, seen in profile behind him, are the center of attention. They are neither mugging for the camera nor ignoring Killips; they are going about their business of the day.
In “May 5, 1981, North Shields, Tyneside,” Killip stood on an elevation and photographed five kids who are standing on a low brick in front of a housing project, where some of the windows are blackened by smoke because its inhabitants set their homes on fire in order to be moved to better public housing. The date is significant because it was when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in response to a question in the House of Commons about the death in prison of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, said, “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims.” In the middle distance, on the right side of the photograph, painted in large white letters on the housing project’s brick wall, are the words: BOBBY SANDS GREEDY IRISH PIG. As Killip recognized, these words took on a different meaning after Sands and, soon after, nine other prisoners starved to death during a well-publicized hunger strike.
In “True Love Wall, Gateshead Town Centre, Tyneside” (1975), a middle-aged man is looking at a brick wall on which someone has written in chalk, “True Love.” His shadow stretches along the littered sidewalk and onto the wall. In “Supermarket, North Shields, Tyneside” (1981), an enormous grocery display of cut-price baked beans fills nearly the entire photograph. There is nothing fictional about these photographs and they are clearly not staged. No one is posing, yet nowhere does Killip claim to be objective – a term that has been grossly misused by those who rejected documentary photography in favor of what they called art. Made more than thirty years ago, Killip’s photographs have lost none of their potency. This isn’t history, as the wall text makes explicit. This is what happened and — as everyone knows — is still happening.
Killip’s photographs invite us to contemplate the destruction of a way of life and the persistence of a populace in the face of governmental indifference and the pettiness and hostility of politicians. They also challenge us to do something about it.
Chris Killip: In Flagrante Two continues at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 27.