The Manx photographer spent decades highlighting the plight of working-class communities in northern England. A long-overdue retrospective reveals the enduring potency of that work
A retrospective of British photographer Chris Killip’s work opened this weekend at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. The exhibition features over 140 works, including images from each of his major series, as well as several lesser-known ones. To coincide with the show, Thames & Hudson will publish a monograph, titled Chris Killip, which similarly traces the photographer’s illustrious career, exploring his strong commitment to the medium, the people he photographed, and the indelible mark he has left on contemporary photography.
Working on the production of the exhibition and the book are photographer Ken Grant and curator Tracy Marshall Grant, long-time friends of Killip’s and the instigators of both projects. After Killip passed away in 2020, Grant and Marshall Grant took it upon themselves to ensure his legacy would not be forgotten: “Chris had been in discussion with The Photographers’ Gallery [TPG] over the last decade about a retrospective, and in 2017 we visited him in Boston [Massachusetts], where the subject came up,” recalls Marshall Grant. “He was keen that it happened and as he became ill he returned to the conversation with us on a number of occasions. When in August 2021, Martin Parr, who now keeps a large holding of Chris’ pictures in the Martin Parr Foundation, invited us to meet with TPG and Thames & Hudson, it seemed natural for us to pick up that conversation on Chris’ behalf.”
“Though Chris’ major series were achieved during an intense decade of production, it is telling that even three decades later he was in touch with, and fondly received by those who populated his pictures.”
As a result, Grant and Marshall Grant were given access to Killip’s archive and began selecting work for the retrospective. Grant was also asked to write several in-depth texts and essays for the book, offering detailed insight into Killip’s practice. Known for his work in Britain in the 1980s, as the country underwent a period of deindustrialisation, Killip was a strong proponent of slow photography, and was famed for his ability to integrate into the communities he was documenting, earning their trust over long periods of time. “His commitment to both the region and communities he photographed is singular in the medium,” says Grant. “Though Chris’ major series were achieved during an intense decade of production, it is telling that even three decades later he was in touch with, and fondly received by those who populated his pictures.”
The people in question belonged to communities all around Britain, but it was Killip’s work with groups in the north of England that won him widespread acclaim. His book In Flagrante (1988) is often considered the most important photographic study of the country in the 80s, and contains some of Killip’s most powerful images. His documentation of working-class communities in the north, shown in an unflinching yet sympathetic manner, revealed in detail the devastating impact deindustrialisation was having on this forgotten section of society. Another of his series, titled Skinningrove, exhibited a similar approach in its study of a small fishing village in North Yorkshire, and Grant cites this body of work as his favourite of Killip’s: “For me, the Skinningrove series has an attachment with both the land and people that has never been bettered. It also, like some of the other series, conveys so much about how Chris was able to become trusted in challenging circumstances. In looking at the series in full, we become as much aware of Chris as a person as we do a photographer.”
For Grant and Marshall Grant, the more personal sides of Killip’s story share equal importance with his photographic legacy. Beyond his own work in the medium, he was also known and respected as an educator. Between 1991 and 2017, he served at Harvard University as a professor of visual and environmental studies, where he taught and came into contact with several prolific names in the photography world. One such figure was American photographer Gregory Halpern, who studied under Killip and recalls this formative experience in one of the book’s essays. He writes: “My notion of being a great photographer at that point was something akin to an explorer, whose success was measured by how well they extracted images. Chris, of course, had a very different idea of how to measure a photographer’s success, and spent a lot of his time talking about things that were bigger than photography.”
This desire to look beyond the surface and to ask the difficult questions is surely one of the defining aspects of Killip’s legacy – both in terms of his work as a photographer, and as a teacher. It is evident in many of the series presented in the exhibition and the book, and is largely why these photographs remain relevant decades after they were taken. Not only are there many parallels between the difficulties faced by disadvantaged communities then and now, but, as Grant attests to, the power of Killip’s photography during that time continues to offer hope in what is a particularly dark period for Britain and the rest of the world: “At a moment of fracture, the humanity in his work might bring solace and strength.”
Chris Killip, retrospective is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London from 07 October 2022 to 19 February 2023. The accompanying book, Chris Killip, is published by Thames & Hudson on 20 October 2022.
Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.