In Chris Killip’s photograph Two Girls, Grangetown, Middlesborough, Teeside, 1976, two youngsters sit on a curb, chatting; the sky is heavy and grey, and the smoke pouring from a coal refinery behind them is blown nearly horizontal by a stiff wind. The photograph speaks volumes about the coal towns in the northeast of England that Killip photographed for his landmark series In Flagrante, taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and also a lot about Killip’s clear-eyed, sympathetic pictures. It captures a brief moment of relative innocence, overshadowed by the bleak future insured by the decline in industry before and during Margaret Thatcher’s time in office.
Originally published in 1988, Killip’s series was recently re-issued by Steidl, and the exhibition of 50 gelatin-silver prints at Yossi Milo Gallery through February 27 is a rare opportunity to see the entire series. Born on the Isle of Man, Killip spent a large portion of his early career documenting the grinding day-to-day life of coal-mining and ship-building towns in the northeast of England. From a group of young men sniffing glue to a woman and her son making their way home along a frigid beach after collecting sea coal, his photographs track the devastating social tensions and economic upheavals of de-industrialization. But as politically rooted as his pictures are, they are also works of art. Although the collapse of the ship-building industry in Jarrow, for example, is an important historical fact, Killip’s Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976, is a wrenching metaphor for exhaustion, despair, and poverty, whether you know anything or not about Jarrow.
Killip’s gelatin-silver prints call to mind the social documentary work of Bill Brandt (who also photographed coal-collectors in Jarrow, three decades earlier), but also, in its breadth and allusive social commentary, to Robert Frank’s The Americans. Most of Killip’s photographs have human subjects, but Supermarket, North Shields, Tyneside shows a wall of row upon row of cans – Heinz baked beans, a nutrient-poor dietary staple for a poor population. These photographs are of a time and place, but in their exploration of struggle, resilience, and class, they are worth a long, hard look.