Sunday 25 October 2020

Britain says "Farewell," the USA has lost, but the Isle of Man made, the old Prince of the Gelatin Silver Print, Chris Killip

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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'.

Chris was born in the Highlander Pub, in the parish of Marown, on the Isle of Man, in the summer of 1946, the son of Molly and Alan, who lived in and ran the pub. He grew up with his siblings, Anthea and Dermott, before he left the island in 1975. He was proud of his Manx heritage drawn from the Isle, situated in the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland, with its long gaelic tradition distinct from mainland Britain. When he was born the population stood at 54,000 and the economy was still largely based on agriculture and fishing. As a self-governing British dependency, it only needed Britain for its defence, otherwise it looked after itself and when Britain joined the European Union in 1973, the Isle of Man did not. 

When he was 6 years old the family moved to White House Pub in the seaside town and fishing port of Peel and it was here that he identified with his 'home' on the Isle. 'Gobbags', literally 'dogfish' and pronounced 'govag' , was the word used to describe someone from Peel and Chris' brother Dermott said of Chris : "He liked to think of himself as a govag". He also said : "Our parents were deeply fond of the Isle of Man. My father had a tremendous knowledge of the Island. They ran three pubs during the course of their lifetime on the island and were known amongst the community and loved people."

Chris recalled that in 1960 : 
"I went to my father and said : "I got kicked out of school on my 16th birthday." He confessed that "School and I were not very compatible." The fact that Chris left Douglas High School for Boys with a single O-level in Art can be explained by the fact that it was the only examination where he didn't need literacy. The school would not have got rid of Chris, as soon as they legally could, unless he had been a difficult pupil with poor behavior and the answer probably lay in the fact that his dyslexia was not recognised a 'learning difficulty' in schools at that time. 

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."

"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 celebratCartier-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."

Chris made his first step into the world of photography at the age of 18 : "So I left my job and became a beach photographer saying ‘smile please’ to strangers" working for 'Keig's' in Port Erin. He already knew that the beach shots revealed nothing about his customers : "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."

With Adrian, who had a reputation as both a celebrity and advertising photographer, Chris began to serve his apprenticeship in photography as his third assistant. David Bailey, like Chris, a dyslexic, had been one of Adrian’s assistants in the 1950s. This was to be the first of a series of jobs Chris had as a freelance assistant for various photographers in the City until 1969, when, at the age of 23, he decided to pursue his own path outside the world of commercial photography after seeing the work of American photographer Paul Strand (left) and Walker Evans (right) at the Museum of Modern Art while on a visit to New York. It was an epiphany moment which inspired him to take pictures “for its own sake.”

His deconstruction and description of the Walker Evans photograph : 'Bed, Tenant Farmhouse. Hale Co. Alabama.1935', provides an insight into his photographer's eye and his belief that he : 'would define photography as a mechanical description of time and Evans’s photograph has always eloquently endorsed this definition.' 
: 'Bleak, sparse, bed, gun. No ornaments, no possessions; poverty, basic survival. Evans’s photograph is about the gun. The framing is odd in this image. One bed is skewed; the other juts awkwardly into the photograph. Why include it? Of course, it’s somebody else’s bed – the children’s. It’s a shared bedroom, no privacy. The window in the room is just a wooden shutter, no glass. To the left of the gun there’s a crack in the wooden wall showing daylight. This shack is a plank thick: in summer you sweat, in winter you freeze. It’s a flash photograph made in daylight, as Evans wants you to see everything clearly. Lower left, is a door hinge that is just in the picture. Evans is desperate to include it. It’s information: the bed is at that angle so that the door can open. Evans is probably backed up against the other wall, trying to include as much as his lens will allow.'

He phoned his father from New York and arranged that, on his return to the Isle of Man he would split his time between working in his father's pub, the 'Bowling Green' in Douglas, by night and travel the island shooting his first series of landscapes and portraits by day.

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."

For his photography he chose the watermills on the island as his theme. His own father was the adopted son of Lewis Killip who at the time had a small watermill at Laxley. Chris chose to focus on : "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."

By this time Chris had switched to using a plate camera "I was taking pictures with a 35mm camera on a tripod and a friend in London told me I was crazy, that I should use a plate camera." He took the friend's advice : "When you make a portrait of someone with a plate camera, it takes time and it gives the person a chance to address the camera. For a want of a better word, 'it’s more serious.' It’s not a casual thing and it’s the paraphernalia of using the plate camera that emphasizes that, too. I think it works to your advantage. They know this is going to live after this moment. It’s not ephemeral." 

At the Golden Meadow Mill of Mr Cubbon, the miller, Chris recalled
"This was the first photograph I took with a plate camera. Forty years later the man remembered the day very clearly because I was taking so long to take this picture because he had so much to do and taking this picture was "Never ending. Never ending." 

"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." 

In 1971, Lee Witkin, a New York gallery owner, commissioned a limited edition portfolio of Chris' Isle of Man photographs. The advance allowed him to continue working independently and, in 1974, he was commissioned to photograph Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds, which resulted in an exhibition, 'Two Views, Two Cities', held at the art galleries of each city. The work from this time was eventually published by the Arts Council as 'Isle of Man : A Book about the Manx', in 1980, with a text by John Berger. 

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. 

He recalled : "I remember speaking with Josef Koudelka in 1975 about why I should stay in Newcastle." Josef  was the distinguished Czech-French photographer who worked for the Magnum Agency. "Josef said that "you could bring in six Magnum photographers and they could stay and photograph for six weeks - and he felt that inevitably their photographs would have a sort of similarity. As good as they were, their photographs wouldn't get beyond a certain point. But if you stayed for two years, your pictures would be different, and if you stayed for three years they would be different again. You could get under the skin of a place and do something different, because you were then photographing from the inside." I understood what he was talking about. I stayed in Newcastle for fifteen years. I mean, to get the access to photograph the sea-coal workers took eight years. You do get embroiled in a place."

It was in the isolated village of Skinningrove on the North Yorkshire coast where he got to know several young men before he photographed them passing time by mending their small fishing boats or staring out to sea. He took with him what he had learnt from the Isle of Man and could say : "I spend a lot of time with people or communities so I can become part of the furniture which takes a lot of time and effort to do. So my camera isn't something cold and strange and I'm there and present and can photograph."

He found that ”Now Then" was the standard greeting in
Skinningrove and "a challenging substitute for the more usual, "Hello". The place had a definite 'edge' and it took time for this stranger to be tolerated. My greatest ally in gaining acceptance was 'Leso' (Leslie Holliday, right), the most outgoing of the younger fishermen. Leso and I never talked about what I was doing there, but when someone questioned my presence, he would intercede and vouch for me with, "He's OK". This simple endorsement was enough." "For me Skinningrove's sense of purpose was bound up in its collective obsession with the sea. Skinningrove fishermen believed that the sea in front of them was their private territory, theirs alone."

His powerful and eloquent 'Simon being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1983' needed no explanation. 

In photographic pursuit of Northumberland sea-coal workers, in 1983, he bought a caravan and occupied it for well over a year on the coast at Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, a coastal village in Northumberland and recalled : "I had a caravan, and I was very famous for making cups of tea and people used to come. It was like my studio, really. People would sit down and the entrance fee to my place was I’d be photographing you." 

Chris started documenting the community of workers who harvested loose coal from a beach in Lynemouth which was the detritus left by a local mining concern. Initially, he was chased off the beach whenever he showed up with his camera, but he was eventually allowed access after gaining the confidence of another 'Leso', in the shape of a towering local figure named Trevor Critchlow who intervened on his behalf. In the photograph 'Gordon and Critch’s Cart,' Chris captured a friend of Trevor’s named Gordon, who was in the midst of harvesting the coal that bobs around the surf and watched Chris photograph him.

Chris became good friends with the couple, Brian and Rosie Laidler, who often fed him dinner despite their limited means. Staying with the Laidlers for a time was Moira, who Chris captured harvesting coal in a fur coat and said : "It seems quite ironic in this very nice fur coat to be picking coal, Moira had gotten from her mother who didn't were it anymore and it was always referred to as 'the very good fur coat.'"

Chris said that Lynemouth, where the sea-coalers worked, was a “tough place, but it wasn’t an unhappy place. There was lots of energy and lots of fun. There was rivalry and enthusiasms and passions. People were not despairing. It was a very complex community and with a great sense of purpose, which wasc: get the coal and make money and I’ve always been interested in places that had purpose.” He captured this in an image of a young girl named Helen, who played on a couch that had been left on the beach and said : “She was the second youngest of Brian and Rosie’s children. She had very good movement, always moving and dancing." 

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.”

1 comment:

  1. Lovely that you've pulled together and illustrated this on Chris (Killip). Thank you. I am just seeing it for the first time (in America, where lived until his death earlier in October, 2020). I am his wife, Mary.