Chris Killip – Seacoal

Copyright Chris Killip 2011 published by Steidl and GwinZegal

During an intermittent period of fourteen months spanning 1983 and 1984 Chris Killip photographed a small hardworking but tight-knit community located on the Northeastern coast of the United Kingdom. His subjects are the families and individuals who were making their living collecting and selling the coal found on a shore line. The coal that is found is called seacoal as if it was thought to be coal arising from the sea. Killip’s project lay dormant until recently resurrected and developed into a published photobook.

To establish the back story Killip elegantly states in his introduction “When I first saw the beach at Lynemouth in January 1976, I recognized the industry above it but nothing else. The beach beneath me was full of activity with horses and carts backed into the sea. Men were standing in the sea next to the carts, using small wire nets attached to poles to fish out the coal from the water beneath them. The place confounded time; here the Middle Ages and the twentieth century intertwined.”

This is a narrative of a small unique community in which the work being performed is also intertwined with the lifestyle of those who are working. Killip investigates the type of work while creating portraits of those who perform the work and the activities of those working. Thus this is an investigation into the identity of those who have chosen this lifestyle.

Killip effectively sets the stage of this community that is living in the shadows of the large industrial plant that consumes their efforts of fighting with the sea. In many photographs there is a gray shadowy presence in the background with an occasional tall smoke stack looming on the horizon. The natural coal that is found on the coast is in close proximity of the coal-burning facility in the background lurking, perhaps omnipresent, necessary environmental evil which the results of the burning coal fall upon them. Killip also makes it evident that living on this coastal beach is not all sunny days with umbrella drinks in hand with the evident piles of litter, rubbish, discards and abandoned vehicles surrounding the trailers, motor homes and caravans.

Killip captures the work in progress that hints at the amount of labor that is involved with horse-drawn and manual operated carts, difficult work amidst bleak and desolate living conditions. Similar to farmers these individuals not only perform their necessary wage earning work it also includes the necessary maintenance of the equipment, homes, vehicles and animals. He captures the children who appear to be making the most of the current conditions; smiling and performing for the photographer’s lens and even so, reveal something about themselves in the process.

Killip’s project was photographed in a documentary style using a classic black and white format. This project reveals Killip’s mastery of the black & white medium with beautiful range of mid-range values and his ability to establish personal relationships that allow him to intimately connect with his subjects and discerning sensibilities to compose beautiful, yet subtle photographic images. As a reader we sense that this is narrative is similar in style to a reporter’s story but realize that we are provided many tantalizing clues and yet not the entire story.

This book as an object has a contemporary deign and layout that provides a timeless look to the photographs. In my first reading of just the photographs I was not aware that this body of work is over thirty years old. This book also reflects a definite expertise of Steidl to publish really beautifully printed black & white photographic books.

Current status of this site: The seacoal camp has been leveled and landscaped and is now an approved caravan site for Travellers. The coal mine is gone and with it the seacoal.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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