Photographer Chris Killip, born in Douglas on the Isle of Man, spent 16 years in Newcastle upon Tyne during the 1970s and ’80s. His images of the region’s industrial workers were published in the book In Flagrante (1988) with another series Seacoal (1985) documenting the lives of the villagers of nearby Lynemouth, who made their living fishing scrap coal out of the North Sea. In these black and white images that form the main body of a blinding retrospective at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Killip unwittingly captured the end of an era. By the mid 1980s, the North East’s staple industries of shipbuilding and coal mining had the plug pulled on them by Mrs Thatcher and the Tories, sending thousands of workers and their families down the drain.
Having grown up in Newcastle in that period, it’s weird to be viewing aspects of my Geordie past from my Spanish present. Yet it also seems appropriate to revisit it in this way: through images that might reflect the nature of memory itself, a series of freeze-frames, selective, half-invented, doused in white low cloud and tinged with grey teenage boredom. In the portraits in the first room I find myself looking for an exchange, an old identity perhaps, or some kind of recognition. But the overriding atmosphere is insular, impenetrable. Recognisable to me, though, in many of these shots, is that stoical good humour with its edge of aggression that prevails in the North East; an attitude that keeps you going but that somehow stops you moving on. I hear it in Chris Killip, too, who, in a filmed interview with the exhibition curator Ute Eskildsen, speaks of his 20-year professorship at top American Uni Harvard with baffled amusement, as if embarrassed by his own success.
Killip trained as a commercial photographer before becoming interested in social themes, claiming, that “it is impossible for a photographer to be objective”! Yet he manages to keep his distance, even in close-ups. Photos retain the theatrical qualities of advertising shots, which encourages me to think them more widely symbolic of something. In a series taken at the Pirelli tyre factory in Burton-on-Trent, Killip used artificial light to counteract the factory’s gloomy conditions, so that workers spring out of dark surroundings, like something out of a Caravaggio. Proud figures in dynamic poses, these men are bright vital cogs in a production machine. And it is work, too, that defines Killip’s Newcastle shots, where the prominence of brick walls suggest both order and restriction. A young man balances on one while supported by another, he clutches his head in a pose that suggests both vulnerability and resilience (see photo, top). In another (see below) a man in a mac stares at a brick wall, a dead-end that bears the chalk scrawled enigma of ‘true love’. In a third, neat lines of burnt out windows in Newcastle’s West End fill the frame, like black eyes on an impassive façade.
Some of these figures look like something out of Dickens, and it’s odd how these photos seem to defy time and yet lament the fleeting moment. In individual photographs I see mistrust and in group photos hostility, this is a community, as critic Adrian Searle put it, “with more pride than hope”. Within months of taking the photo their jobs would have vanished and not long after the communities too would dissipate. So, for me, it’s the images that show the world outside of work that really pack their punch. Leisure time is supposed to be what we all work for, yet where no walls are present figures flounder in a kind of vertigo. A group of punks mosh themselves stupid in a claustrophobic club; a couple spend a blustery Sunday amidst the flapping rubbish on Whitley Bay beach, empty crisp packets, crushed cans and bits of old plastic, portents of wasted days ahead.
October 2, 2013 – February 24, 2014 / Sabatini Building, Floor 3