Biographies​ of great photographers tend, as you might imagine, to include the moment their subject acquired a camera and took a first shot. We’re asked to conjure little Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Jacques Henri Lartigue, on holiday with his parents and a Box Brownie, everyone eager for images. Chris Killip, who was born in 1946 and died in 2020, had never owned a camera or taken a picture when he resolved in his late teens to quit the hotel-management course he was taking in his native Isle of Man and become a professional photographer. His head had been turned by Cartier-Bresson’s 1954 image of a small boy hefting two large wine bottles, which he spotted in the pages of Paris Match. For a while, Killip pursued a career on strict 1960s Bailey-Blowup lines: he moved to London as assistant to Justin de Villeneuve, Twiggy’s manager (and formerly a Mayfair hairdresser under the name Christian St Forget). On a trip to New York in 1969, Killip was diverted for a second time, by the work of Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, August Sander and Paul Strand.

He returned home, worked in his parents’ pub and began documenting a place that was still, via Dublin and Liverpool, a popular holiday destination. There are no tourists in Killip’s early images, no sign of the annual TT races that he would later photograph, no hint of the island’s tax-haven future. He wanted to capture all that was on the brink of vanishing, to ‘make exist a non-existent Isle of Man’. Alongside this translation, a technical adjustment: he switched from 35mm to large format, so that his images became more precise and more monumental. Austere cottage interiors take on the weight of detail seen in Atget’s photographs of disappearing corners of Paris. Killip’s landscapes – a distant tractor ploughing towards the sea, unpeopled expanses of cloud and rock – seem calmly out of time.

At the Photographers’ Gallery (where Chris Killip: Retrospective runs until 19 February), the Isle of Man landscapes feel like breathing space between the extraordinary portraits. Killip came, as he put it, from ‘a buoyant place, full of characters and accepting of behaviour’. There isn’t much behaviour of any sort in his static and dignified portraits, but there is plenty of character. Mr ‘Johnny’ Moore (always this formality in Killip’s naming of his island subjects) with his stubbly, slightly stooping distrust of the camera. The curled and freckled Mr Michael Rooney, who in his smock and kerchief seems to look at us straight out of a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph from the 1860s. The long-necked poise of Mrs Barbara Hyslop, the intimate textures of dark hair and fine wool. Much like the portrait sitters for Cameron or Nadar, Killip’s subjects appear to live inside their clothes, whether pristine or marked by labour, with an archaic intensity – as if body, fabric and landscape were all one. Here is farmer John Radcliffe, a mass of creases and mud, stitched and darned repairs. His cat has crept into shot. When Killip brought Radcliffe a print of this photograph, he folded it carefully till it could vanish into his coat pocket.

In 1975, Killip was awarded a two-year Northern Arts Fellowship. He used it to embark on the work that dominates the selection at the Photographers’ Gallery. In the North of England, over the next decade and more, he photographed ‘those who had history done to them – who felt its malicious disregard’. The village of Lynemouth in Northumberland was home to an encampment of travellers who collected seacoal (a waste product of the local mines) from the shore. Power station in the distance, wide black beach with tracks running between mounds of coal: Killip’s studies of this punishing territory are as far as you could get from the industrial sublime of a photographer like Sebastião Salgado. There is nothing mythical about Killip’s coal pickers as they wade out in winter at high tide, or take shelter afterwards in their caravans. Their lineage is one of struggle and subsistence. Killip said later: ‘The place confounded time; here the Middle Ages and the 20th century intertwined.’

‘Crabs, People, Dogs’ (1981)

A series like the one he made at Lynemouth involved many months spent winning trust and confidence. Such relationships, once they had been won, were to be respected: when a passer-by once asked Killip why he was photographing a ‘dishevelled mess of a village’, a fight ensued. The place in question was Skinningrove, a North Yorkshire fishing village. Killip photographed young men tending to boats and crab pots, whiling away the hours as they waited for the tide, lying in the sun like seals. It’s the tail end of punk, and Leso, Bever and David look entirely of their time, with spiked hair and amateurish tattoos. Leso, who looks like a sea-weathered Paul Weller, is a nervy ringleader, holding court. Bever, only recently out of jail after a pub fight, has his own name tattooed on his neck. You track these lads between pictures, only to find out Leso and David have been drowned. Bever was washed ashore and survived. In what is surely Killip’s most affecting image, David’s young son Simon, in his neat blazer, is taken out to sea for the first time since his father’s death. Pale against the near-white sky and sea, Simon turns from the camera like a child in a sentimental Victorian painting.

In some of the Skinningrove photographs, the locals are closely grouped, huddled against the scrappy immensity of the coast. But in other places the group, and with it the whole composition, expands, and begins to look more unsettled, tending also to the diagonal. Take Crabs, People, Dogs from 1981, with its rocks, concrete steps, slipway and sea, and a skinny dog at each side of the picture, looking out of frame. The crabs are piled up at bottom left in a little cart: two-wheeled and tilted, comical twin to the pram a little way to the right. Three people are visible (and presumably a fourth, the baby, unseen); all but one face away from the camera: a man in a pale Ford estate car at the upper right, who looks in our direction. He’s the only stable, slightly obscured element in a composition where everything else appears sliding and provisional.

This sense of slanting disarray is one of the things you notice when Killip’s photographs from different places or different series are made to sit alongside each other. This sliding, precarious energy is also present in a frequently reproduced picture from Lynemouth: Helen and Her Hula-Hoop (1984). But the straight-on study continued to be just as prevalent in his work: Atget-like images of flat façades with uprights and laterals, more or less decayed and abandoned. Sometimes these are blank – like the isolated tenement in Huddersfield, where breeze blocks fill adjacent doors and windows – and sometimes lively, if still decrepit, as in the crudely painted signs all over Jimmy’s TV Repair Shop (1974): ‘Cash and Carry’; ‘Licensed Broker’; ‘TV Hospital’.

Though he is easily defined by his subject matter (Lynsey Hanley makes a good case in the exhibition catalogue for his continued social and political relevance), Killip also had a fierce sense of the way the styles of his predecessors might be redeployed. His Huddersfield Whippet Fancier from 1973 could have been photographed by August Sander – the dog even looks away like the one in Sander’s The Notary (1924). When Killip photographed the Pirelli factory in Burton-on-Trent in 1989, his flash and large-format Linhof camera made the machines and products look like Neue Sachlichkeit images of the 1920s. But among the shadows and gleaming surfaces are the workers, concentrating fixedly. There are no types or archetypes in Killip’s photographs, only the singular iteration of faces and bodies.

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