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Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography, University of Brighton tweeted :
'A really old-fashioned obituary notice about Chris Killip : mainly factual, non-shrill ...... and the Kilippery really shines out. I'm glad it’s been written and recommend others read it'.
He started work as a trainee hotel manager at the Castle Mona Hotel in Douglas and it was while working there, at the age of 17, his life would dramatically change course.
He recalled : "A keen racing cyclist, I had gotten my hands on a copy of Paris-Match and was tearing through the pages to get to the pictures of the Tour de France when I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954), depicting a boy carrying two bottles of wine. It stopped me in my tracks and held me spellbound. I was really puzzled as to why. It didn’t look like a snapshot, it wasn’t an advert, it wasn’t in the service of anything but itself, so what did that make it? To be truthful, I didn’t know, and at that time I couldn’t have talked about the confusion and excitement that this photograph was causing me. Up until then, it had never occurred to me that photography could be used as a means of expression." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjfrZ7JbH7Q7t=0m22s
"After seeing this image, I wondered about the possibilities for photography. Six months later, my father scared me by saying he was prepared to pay for me to go to Switzerland, to attend a hotel management school. I liked hotel life, but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my career." When he told his father he said : "Dad, I'm going to become a photographer and he said : "You haven't got a camera". I said "I know" and he said "You can't take the pictures." I said : "I know. But that can be arranged".
He could not have foreseen that 15 years later, having built his reputation as a photographer, he would be invited to a party in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s 70th birthday. He recalled : "He told me that when he was 18 he went to see a fortune-teller, who predicted with uncanny accuracy everything about his life except, he said, for one thing: she had told him he would die young. He burst out laughing. Cartier-Bresson lived to be 95 and those who knew him also knew that, at whatever age he died, he would die young.""I don't like smiley faces. A smile is a defence mechanism. It says you can't have the real me, but here's my smile. You get close to the real person when they stop smiling." He had a clear purpose : "I needed to earn enough money to go to London to try and get a job as a photographer’s assistant. I had been told that this was the only viable route that I could follow to learn anything about photography."
"With the money I saved I moved to London and tried to get a job as a photographer's assistant. I made a list of the hundred best photographers and, starting at the bottom, I began knocking on studio doors. I had worked my way right up that list, was running out of money and I still hadn't found a job, when I knocked on my ninety-sixth door in Tite Street, Chelsea." The woman who answered the door recognised his Manx accent, having had a college boyfriend whose father photographic studio, "Joe's Bar" in Strand Street, Douglas. "She then persuaded her boss, the photographer Adrian Flowers, to hire me. It was an amazingly fortuitous start to my career in photography. At the end of my first week Adrian said to me, "I believe that you know a thing or two about catering. Why don't you organize the food and drink for a party we will have here tonight for friends who just got engaged." At seven o'clock that evening the studio doors burst open and in came Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pre. It was quite a party and I knew how lucky I was to be a part of it."
In March 2020, Chris recalled one incident from when he served behind the bar and prefaced this with : "My father was a profound influence on me." One summer night, the presence of a black customer in the pub prompted another to say to his father : "If you serve him I'm leaving here forever." My father looked at the man, took his beer, poured it down the sink, went to the till and gave him the money and said : "Goodnight." A month later the man returned and said :"Alan, am I banned ?" My father said : "No, you're very welcome. What would you like to drink ?" He said he hated the sin, he didn't hate the sinner.""the remaining water mills in the Isle of Man. Once there had been fifty-nine of them, but over the years they had been shut down and by then there were only three left operating commercially. Traditional milling methods are labour intensive and, by modern standards, uneconomical. The millers’ trade and the multifarious knowledge needed to adjust the stones, measure the flow of water and obtain the required flour qualities was passed on for generations from father to son."
He recalled : "My intention in 1970 was to make a book about the water mills and a portfolio of these images was published in the January 1971 issue of 'Camera of Switzerland'. I had also by then become interested in the last of the thrashing mills. Some farms still had their own thrashing mill, those without were serviced by the mill belonging to Tom Kinnish. He still travelled, along with his right hand man Harry Hampton, to the farms in need of a thrashing mill."
He recalled the process of taking the photographs of those he met, like Miss Redpath, he recalled when he asked if he could photograph them : "They would say to me : "Who was your grandfather on your father's side ? Who was your grandmother on your mother's side ?" And they would locate me through this lineage. And "who else was I related to ?" And I used to think this was a strange thing. But I no longer think that. I think, 'no', they know quite a lot about me, knowing my lineage."
"This woman, I went to school with her son. This woman had a cafe. She had a bungalow with a very big garden where she grew all her own vegetables and made her own jam. All the clothes she had on she made, never bought anything in a shop."
Almost 40 years later in 2008 and almost 30 years after he had settled in the USA, he was staying with friends on the Isle of Man and had given them a set of prints based on his mills and thrashing study when, as he recalled :
"I received an email, at my Harvard account, from the woman who is the head of the Isle of Man Postal Authority. She asked whether I had any images that I could envision as stamps. She didn’t know I was in the country, so I rather mischievously knocked on her door that afternoon, explaining that I had come as quickly as I could, and showed her the photographs that I was making for my friends. Eight of these, including Thrashing, Grenaby were released as a set of stamps in 2009."
It was to be in mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s and not his native Isle of Man, that Chris would create his most memorable work. In 1975, he moved close to Newcastle-upon-Tyne into a flat in Bill Quay, Gateshead, on a two year fellowship as the Northern Arts Photography Fellow and went on to become a founding member, exhibition curator and advisor of Side Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as its Director, from 1977-9. Newcastle would be the base from which he created the body of work that would define him as an outstanding documentary photographer.
His work from these years was published in 1988 as 'In Flagrante' with a text by Berger and Sylvia Grant and his resulting black and white images of Britain's three main heavy industries : steelworks, shipyards and coal mines, as they went into decline, are now regarded as being among the most important visual records of living in 1980s Britain. Chris had a deep respect for his subjects and was conscious that : “In recording their lives, I’m valuing their lives,” he said of his mainly unemployed subjects. “These people will not appear in history books because ordinary people don’t. History is done to them. It is not acknowledged that they make history.” “I am the photographer of the de-industrial revolution in England. I didn’t set out to be this. It’s what happened during the time I was photographing” and “History is what’s written. My pictures are what happened.”
Of the book's title, he explained : “'In Flagrante' means ‘caught in the act,’ and that’s what my pictures are. You can see me in the shadow, but I’m trying to undermine your confidence in what you’re seeing, to remind people that photographs are a construction, a fabrication. They were made by somebody. They are not to be trusted. It’s as simple as that.” Chris also said of In Flagrante : "I was influenced by John Berger's TV programme, 'Ways of Seeing'. I was so excited by that. I was just trying to understand then that no matter what you did, you inevitably had a political position. How declared it was was up to you, but it was going to be inherent in the work and it was something you should think about as a maker. I never worried about my position in the art world. I thought time and history would ultimately judge me, that my job was to get on with it, to make the work and to make it wholeheartedly from what had informed me."
With the onset of the 1990s his black and white documentation was rapidly going out of fashion in a Britain where photographers used colour to serve consumerism and for consciously and explicitly artistic purposes. In 1991, Chris moved to the USA, having been offered a visiting lectureship at Harvard, where he was later appointed Professor Emeritus in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, a post he held until his retirement in 2017. He didn't return to Britain, but over his remaining 29 years he maintained his annual visit to his beloved Isle of Man.
His brother Dermott, also a photographer, said : "He wasn't seeking money, ever. He just sought to try and find a kind of truth that he could reveal through his pictures, and I think he did that. Internationally I think his legacy will be of one of photography's greats. He made a stunning contribution and hell be remembered for that."
Chris said in 2017 :“I wanted to record people’s lives because I valued them. I wanted them to be remembered. If you take a photograph of someone they are immortalised, they’re there forever. For me that was important, that you’re acknowledging people’s lives and also contextualising people’s lives.”