If you are under the age of thirty you may not have heard of Chris Killip. For some the landscape of postwar photography is unimaginable without his influence.
Some see him as maker of magisterial, dramatic and rhetorically sophisticated single images that uphold the high standards of modernist documentary set by Bill Brandt, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and August Sander. Indeed, given the comparatively small scope of his oeuvre he has had an extraordinary strike rate, producing many memorable photographs of life in the British Isles. For others it is Killip’s books that really matter, where the complexity and emotional force of those images is compounded, nuanced, reworked and even undone.
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Whenever I come across one of his classic photographs singled out and cut off from its body of work I must confess I feel uneasy. It is too tempting to misread it as an icon or symbol for the social situation it depicts rather than as a photographic response to it. Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, UK, 1976 is still celebrated regularly as a condensed summary of Britain’s slide toward the divisive social and economic policies of the 1980s. But what I see is an image that could be that but might not be. The space of doubt opened up by a powerful single photograph may be foreclosed by hasty interpretation.
Whenever I am involved with one of Killip’s books – and they are among the most involving books of the last forty years – I sense something resistant, recalcitrant even. In his preface to In Flagrante (1988) he wrote “This book is a fiction about metaphor”, and he book-ended the sequence of photos with shots of his own shadow protruding into the frame beside his bulky 5×4 camera. It was as much a warning as a statement: Do not read these images as documents in any simple sense. What may look like a melancholic depiction of Thatcherism’s underclass may well be something more or something else, so stay on your toes. It is a tactic Brandt and Evans made their own, presenting the viewer with straightforward-looking photographs put together in such a way that they might come to query their own convictions and yours. Like Brandt’s The English at Home (1936) and Evans’ American Photographs (1938), the recently republished In Flagrante has achieved canonical status by wrong-footing its audience and remaining thoroughly enigmatic.
There was no quick follow up to In Flagrante (there is nothing quick about Killip at all). In 1989 he was commissioned to photograph the working life of the Pirelli tyre factory in Derbyshire. At that time many of leading photographers in the UK had been lured from the shop floor to the shopping arcade, from documenting production to consumption, switching from black and white to the lurid colour and behaviour of the retail boom. Killip was not one of them. His brooding and meditative portraits of working bodies immersed in dark grime could not have been less timely. But I imagine timeliness has never been his interest. It can be such an overrated virtue, especially in these hyper-fashionable and fickle times. Twenty years on Killip’s Pirelli work speaks as eloquently about manual labour and its representation as any photographs in the whole history of the medium, never mind the 1980s.
Between 1993 and 2005 Killip made ten visits from his new home in America to the west of Ireland to photograph the annual pilgrimages at Croagh Patrick and Máméan. At first glance the pictures he made look very simple, with little of the rhetorical flair or technical virtuosity of his past work. Even so his familiar themes are here: the links between individuals, communities and their environment; life in the slower lanes of modernity; the persistence of the past in the present; the ambiguities of ritual; and of course photographic representation itself. The book of the work is titled Here Comes Everybody and it takes the form of a facsimile of a personal photo album. Each image is printed on the page no larger than a high street enprint, with a white border. The effect is to place the work in suspension, somewhere between the private and the public realms.
What kind of pictorial or social statement does this work make? And for whom? Consider what these images avoid. Clearly they avoid the pomposity and posturing that characterizes so much contemporary art photography. More pertinently they avoid the extravagance and histrionics that have come to dominate the literary and pictorial depiction of religious life in Ireland. Although they constitute a diary of sorts they avoid the manipulations of art photography’s well-worn “personal” mode in which cheap flirtation and empty confession presume to pass as intimacy. There is nothing gimmicky and monumental here, just the landscape and the persistence of human life caught as always between pragmatism and idealism.
Might it be that you cannot photograph a pilgrimage unless you make the pilgrimage yourself? Or is it true that you cannot be an observer and a participant at the same time? Photography implies and demands connection and disconnection. We all feel this the second we lift a camera to our eye, or cast that eye over a photograph. We are present to and absented from what we observe. It seems fitting that Killip has observed, photographed and presented these pilgrimages from the ‘inside out’ and the ‘outside in’. He has opted for a photographic form at once close to and removed from his subjects and the way his subjects might use a camera. Here Comes Everyone. Everyone is a Photographer. Including Chris Killip.
Published in Photoworks Issue 12, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks