Chris Killip: Retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery review

Superb and timely exhibition features ‘beautiful and painfully moving’ images

Chris Killip: Retrospective
Chris Killip: pictures are ‘beautiful and painfully moving’
(Image credit: The Photographer’s Gallery)

Chris Killip’s pictures of working-class life in the 1970s and 1980s are “classics of British documentary photography”, said Josh Gabert-Doyon in the Financial Times.

Born on the Isle of Man in 1946, Killip trained as a commercial photographer, but became increasingly drawn to documenting disappearing ways of life in the North of England.

He moved to Newcastle in 1975, and started to focus on the Northeast as its key shipbuilding and coal-mining industries entered a phase of terminal decline; he shot hundreds of black and white photos that were “the result of well-forged relationships and intimate knowledge of place”. In these pictures, “men scavenge for coal”, horse-drawn carts drive through “crashing waves” and smokestacks billow in the distance.

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‘A complicated story’

Coming more than two years after Killip’s death in 2020, this exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery brings together more than 140 images that tell “a complicated story of resilience, drudgery and life in flux”. It shows that while his pictures captured the social realities of the period, they also had “a mythological, almost timeless quality” that elevated them “beyond simple archival document”.

Some of Killip’s earliest documentary images, captured on the Isle of Man in the 1970s, look as though they could have been taken half-a-century before, said Chris Waywell in Time Out: “men till fields with horses, stone walls grid the landscape under glowering skies”.

Killip’s work becomes more “vital” still following his move to the Northeast, where he pictured “Tyne shipbuilders, steelworkers in Yorkshire and seacoal scavengers on the Northumbrian coast”. All seem “shockingly, immediately alive”. It’s fascinating to see what people are wearing: a woman in her “very good fur coat” picks coal off a beach, while an old man is seen “dozing on a bench”, his trousers held up by a Second World War German army belt.

‘Beautiful and painfully moving’

Killip always “rejected the notion that his work was emblematic of the Thatcher years”, said Charlie Bird on The Quietus. But they are certainly all about “the human element of economic deprivation” and the resilience of communities affected.

Images of disaffected punks recur throughout, while one particularly “powerful” series here documents the Miners’ Strike of 1984. Among its highlights is a photo of a striking miner dressed as a policeman in a pig mask – an image that “needs little decoding”.

Killip’s pictures are “beautiful and painfully moving”, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. Perhaps most poignant of all are six photographs of the same Wallsend street taken between 1975 and 1977: in the first, “the hulk of a supertanker” in a nearby shipyard dwarfs terraced houses; by the last, the yard stands empty and the houses have all been “razed”. This is a superb and timely exhibition – I “passionately recommend” it.

The Photographers’ Gallery, until 19 February.

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