Chris Killip Exhibition/Book
On a recent visit to England to see my mum, I took a day trip to London with a dear pal of mine, ostensibly to see the Lucian Freud: New Perspectives exhibition at The National Gallery but also to revel in the all-too-rare delights of my friend's company, drink beer (one of us drank more than the other; the finger points away from me, reader), have dinner, wander the streets, etc. All of which was accomplished…
If I’m honest, the Freud exhibition felt a little slight, undernourished. A byproduct of this, however, was that the relative brevity of the Freud exhibit allowed me the opportunity to view the Chris Killip retrospective at The Photographer’s Gallery ten minutes up the road (while someone else drank beer, mind you). The Killip exhibition proved particularly worthwhile - and even more so was the purchase of the book that both accompanies and expands upon the exhibition.
The book's stunning introductory spread.
A few details about Chris Killip: he was born and raised on the Isles of Man, a landmass grounded in the Irish Sea between the north-west of England and Ireland. He left school at 16 and spent the majority of his working life in England, photographing and living amongst poor and underserved communities, the kind of people he described as those who have ‘had history done to them.’ He spent a year photographing the miner’s strike in 1984 – the longest and most acrimonious industrial action in modern British history and the height of Thatcherism. In 1991 he moved to the US and taught at Harvard, serving as tenured Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies until 2017 – an astonishing accomplishment for someone who didn’t even complete high school.
Chris Killip died of lung cancer at 74, in 2020.
Tyne Pride. I love this so much. This image was part of a project photographed in the Tyne shipyards of the north-east of England.
As someone also from the north of England (albeit from Manchester, in the north-west), there's a whiff of nostalgia for me in some of what I see here. I grew-up as this era of factory chimneys and terraced housing, cobbled streets and corner shops drew to a close. It's not my place to romanticize the lack of material things seen here, paint these as 'less complicated days.' The struggles I see in some of Killip's images don't belong to me - but they did belong to my parents, and it was their arms that lifted me and carried me to greater opportunity.
I’ve felt some frustration for a while now with elements of digital photography, elements that only enhance my admiration for Killip’s work. To be clear, I’m not unearthing anything new here. Mine are common complaints, particularly among photographers of my generation: the lack of craft required to capture moments within such a forgiving medium as digital photography. The finite nature of film. The lack of lassitude when you don’t actually have a thousand more shutter activations to cover yourself. The need to get some approximation of a correct exposure, lacking the recovery capabilities embedded in a high-end digital sensor.
I love the quiet patience in Killip’s best portraits.
I’m thinking about the processing in contemporary photography. How often do we see a mediocre image elevated by a quick color grade or some other ‘artificial’ element? Certainly I've been guilty of it.
In commercial photography at least, have we reached a point where the digital artist holds primacy over the image maker?
I’m aware of the arguments against what I’m saying here. Processing has ALWAYS been an integral part of image making.
James Dean image © Dennis Stock. Portrait © Richard Avedon
Also, it's clear that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s escaped. Technology advances and we must advance with it. Understood.
And, if you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you just shoot film? (well, for one thing, see previous: the commercial/editorial worlds move too fast now, the delivery expectations are much different. For another, I too am used to the convenience, the forgiveness).
Part of the nature of creativity is to question your process. That’s all I’m doing here - questioning my own work, and my ways of working. Being mindful of honoring the capture. Of not attempting to rescue an image from deserved oblivion with smoke and mirrors, filters and curves. Reminding myself.
To circle back to the beginning, it’s just one of the things that the Chris Killip exhibition/book brought me around to thinking about more deeply. Also, a reminder of the importance of taking the extra steps to get out and engage with others’ work.