Chris Killip 1946 – 2020

Review by Melanie Chapman ·

A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool
Till you’re so f**king crazy, you can’t follow their rules…

(*lyrics and music by John Lennon)

If ever there were a soundtrack to accompany a photobook, it would be John Lennon’s music played while breathing in the staggering beauty that is the photography of fellow working-class brilliant Brit, Chris Killip. 

The career retrospective of the late great photographer, aptly titled Chris Killip1946-2020 is a gorgeous new photobook published by Thames and Hudson. If you are familiar with Killip’s dynamic and sincerely observed medium and large format black and white film imagery, you will appreciate the importance of this publication. If you care about the off shoring of manufacturing jobs (and in this instance how that impacted the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 80s) you must seek out Killip’s gorgeous rendering of a tragedy that repeats to this day.

Some photobooks, some bodies of work, are so impressive that it is intimidating to put into words a measure of their value. Chris Killip is such a book. The tactile pleasure of this hardbound book, with its lush paper and sublime tonal printing, nearly overwhelms the content of Killip’s images depicting the landscape and people of working-class England and Ireland during the Thatcher era of the 1970’s and 80’s. To view these images is to find oneself confused at times: are these images from the 1930s or 40s, when people worked the land and sea while their attire was not mass produced? Are these photographs from the depression era WPA (Works Progress Administration) or documentary portraits by Paul Strand and Eugene Atget, or are they magnificent paintings in the tradition of William Turner or Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters”? Such is the quality of Killip’s eye. 

As the son of English pub owners, Killip grew up in economic circumstances entirely lacking in artifice or pretension. People worked hard, made little, and correctly believed that their government took them for granted. Setting out in open air boats on stormy seas, or queuing for bread during a flour shortage, these were situations that Killip documented with the compassion of one who had himself known hard times. His appreciation for sailors, bikers, laborers, and their fog enshrouded walks home from church resulted in compassionate and beautiful images that transcend documentary photography and belong in the category of fine art.

‘Tis a pity that this definitive overview of Killip’s 40+ year career, as a photographer and subsequently as a professor at Harvard University, by the very limits of a one volume publication, cannot include the full bodies of his various projects. If so, one might learn that the charismatic fisherman Leso, who figures prominently in Killip’s early 1980s photos of the small fishing village in Skillingrove, UK, would himself eventually be lost at sea. To know this is to find inevitable heartbreak in Killip’s subtle appreciation for the hardworking lads who have few options beyond fishing, drinking, and otherwise hanging out, waiting for something exciting to happen, in a time and place when there was no likelihood of escape. 

A hard-knock life is somehow rendered painful and beautiful simultaneously through Killip’s lens. His portraits of children and old couples are exquisitely framed in front of stone walls that provide context as well as compositional value and are balanced on opposing pages with exterior and interior vistas of their surroundings. One could view two of Killip’s images, made only a couple of years apart, depicting a neighborhood street and the adjacent shipyard where it’s inhabitants once labored, to understand the value of Killip’s talent and the historical significance of his bothering to look, his willingness to see.

It is touching to know that Killip was able to assist in the editing of his final publication before succumbing to an illness in the fall of 2020, and that his longtime printer Steidl was brought on board to help produce this beautiful photobook. Do yourself the favor, save your pennies and your pence, however hard they are to earn, and buy Chris Killip as soon as you are able. It may inspire you to become a punk or a laborer, a photographer of your own surroundings, or perhaps a revolutionary. Any and all would be a fitting tribute to the life of this compassionate and talented man.

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Other photobooks by Chris Killip that have been featured on PhotoBook Journal, include: SeacoalIn Flagrante Two and The Station

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Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and a Southern California photographer

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Chris Killip, 1946-2020

Photographer: Chris Killip, born in Douglas, Isle of Man, passed in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Publisher: Thames and Hudson, UK and USA copyright 2022

Edited by Ken Grant and Tracy Marshall-Grant

Essays: Brett Rogers, Ken Grant, Gregory Halpern, Amanda Maddox, Lynsey Halpern

Text: English

Hardbound, cloth cover embossed title, stitched binding, 256 pages, printed and bound by Steidl (Germany), Library of Congress #2022931867, ISBN 978-0-500-02558-1

Book Design: Niall Sweeney & Nigel Truswell at Pony Ltd.

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are under copyright by the authors and publishers.

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