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Chris Killip - An Obituary

Chris Killip – Photographer


Born July 11, 1946; died October 13, 2020 


Chris Killip, who has died aged 74, was a pioneering documentary photographer, whose depictions of working class communities in the north of England during the1970s and 1980s captured a part of British society in the process of being marginalised or else wiped out entirely. Taken in vivid black and white, Killip’s images were a crucial counterpoint to the Thatcherite claim that there was no such thing as society. Images of the Tyneside shipyards captured great hulks towering over redbrick terraces. Workers coming off shift eye the camera with a mixture of suspicion and defiance. A skinhead youth scrunched up on a wall looks to be in despair.


All these and more were captured in era defining volumes such as In Flagrante (1988), a collection of pictures taken in and around Newcastle between 1973 and 1985, which charted the decline and gradual deindustrialisation of the area. It won Killip the 1989 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, and was later described by Killip’s friend and fellow photographer Martin Parr as ‘the key photobook about Britain since the war.’ Killip’s work is now featured in permanent public collections all over the world.


The landscapes Killip photographed were bleak, but as grim as they might seem to outsiders, he brought out the dignity of his subjects. What were initially of-the-moment portraits of everyday society in flux now look like elegies to a way of life lost as communities had their hearts ripped out and the developers moved in. 


Christopher David Killip was born in Douglas, Isle of Man, to Molly and Alan Killip, who ran a pub. Having left school with a sole O-level in art, he began working as a trainee manager at the only four-star hotel on the island. When he saw a reproduction of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1954 photograph, Rue Mouffetard, Paris, the image of a young boy wielding a bottle in each arm mesmerised him. By 1964, Killip was working as a beach photographer in order to earn enough money to move to London, where he worked as assistant to various commercial photographers.


In 1969, Killip saw his very first photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was inspired by it to return to the Isle of Man to photograph the changing surroundings on his own doorstep. He supported himself by working at night in his parents’ pub. On a return to New York, Killip was commissioned by gallery owner Lee Witkin to make a limited edition portfolio of his Isle of Man images.


In 1972, Killip was commissioned by the then Arts Council of Great Britain to photograph Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds for what became the Two Views – Two Cities exhibition. He moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975 on the back of a two year Northern Arts Photography Fellowship. While he has gone on record as saying that it didn’t feel like the shipyards were in decline during his time there, in retrospect he recognised it as a key moment on the cusp of seismic societal change.  


As the shipyards and other industries were decimated, Killip made a permanent mark on the areas he documented. This came not just through his own photographs, but through the likes of the Side Gallery, the Newcastle based photography gallery of which he was a founding member, curator, advisor, and, from 1977-1979, director. He was also part of the city’s Amber Film and Photography Collective. Both organisations continue, with the latter being one of eight photography based organisations in England to receive support from Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund.


Between 1980 and 1989, Killip provided cover photographs for nineteen issues of the London Review of Books. While these included images from In Flagrante, others were commissions. One, of a striking miner, accompanied an article by Killip giving a frontline account of conflicts between police and the residents of Grimethorpe in Yorkshire. Other cover images included a portrait of novelist Martin Amis. Back in the workplace, in 1989, Killip was commissioned by Pirelli UK to photograph workers at the company’s tyre plant in Burton-on-Trent. 


In 1991, he was invited to become a visiting lecturer in Harvard University’s department of visual and environmental studies. He went initially for a year, but ended up spending the rest of his life in America. At Harvard, he was later made a tenured professor and department chair before retiring in 2017.


In 2016, an expanded version of In Flagrante was published as In Flagrante Two. A quartet of tabloid newsprint editions of unseen photographs - Portraits, The Station, Skinningrove and The Last Ships – was latterly published by Ponybox. Publication of a box set of five books by Café Royal Books, the zine-style imprint that has done so much to champion documentary photography, was brought forward in order that Killip could see the finished result. The collection sold out immediately.


Together, Askam-in-Furness 1982, Southport; Isle of Man TT Races 1971; Huddersfield 1974; The Seaside 1975-1981; and Shipbuilding on Tyneside 1975-1976 showed off the full breadth of Killip’s artistry and humane sense of empathy. This was translated into visual poems of the times that sired them. 


Killip is survived by his wife of twenty years, Mary Halpenny, who he met at Harvard, his son, Matthew, from his relationship with Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova, his stepson, Joshua, two granddaughters, Millie and Celia, and his brother, Dermott.

The Herald, December 14th 2020




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