JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces and the small hallway alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1973 and 1985 and printed recently. All of the prints are sized roughly 16×20 (or reverse, on 20×24 paper) and are available in an open edition. While the original photobook edition of In Flagrante was published by Secker & Warburg in 1988, a reissued version (slightly oversized) entitled In Flagrante Two was recently published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When a photographer decides to take on working class poverty and the subtle despair that accompanies it as his or her subjects, the balance between concerned humanity and inadvertent sensationalism is often tested. From the grimness of tenement life captured by Jacob Riis to the struggles of the Great Depression chronicled by the FSA and WPA photographers and further onward to more modern versions of similar societal pains and perseverance in other places and times, the line between engaged documentation and exploitation can become indistinct, adding yet another layer of dissonance to pictures that are already freighted with plenty of harsh realities.
But while Chris Killip’s images of the hollowed out coal mining and shipbuilding towns of late 1970s England are undeniably political in their visual criticisms, they never stray from a grounding in empathy. Desperation lingers in nearly every frame, but Killip never stands too far from the fray – he’s always close enough for the quiet discouragement to feel intensely intimate and personal, never letting that distress become an arm’s length abstraction to be amplified and trumpeted to the world.
This show coincides with the reissue of Killip’s now-revered photobook In Flagrante, in a physically larger and slightly modified version published by Steidl, appropriately entitled In Flagrante Two. The exhibit displays all 50 images from the project, the first time the full set has been shown in its entirety since the late 1980s (and the first time ever in the United States). Seeing the prints in sequence, there is a strong sense of completeness that extends far beyond the usual picking of favorites and highlights; time hasn’t dampened the emotional power of Killip’s photographs and the fullness of his vision of these interlocked communities feels sharper when the entire aggregate story is available as context.
One line of Killip’s thinking centers on the depressed region of Tyneside, where starting in 1975, he traced the decline of the traditional heavy industries in Newcastle and its surrounding towns for the better part of a decade. Sadly, the progression he followed went from bad to worse, with grimly hulking housing blocks huddled in bunches later being demolished entirely, leaving rubble strewn vacant lots as playgrounds for the local kids. Cheery advertising billboards seem entirely out of place in this bleak landscape, and even family gatherings at the beach seem to mix tenderness with simmering tension and stress.
It is this subtle clash of emotion that inhabits Killip’s pictures again and again – the optimism of an unlikely garden against an improvised plank wall, a scraggly haired father with a dirty collar holding his son on his shoulders to watch a passing parade, the melancholy “true love” scrawled on a brick wall near a sidewalk strewn with newspapers and garbage, a crane-decorated super tanker named “Tyne Pride” dwarfing a hopelessly dark cobbled alley. While the white bread at the Royal Wedding celebration and the endless rows of canned baked beans at the grocery store provide clues to the poverty that gripped the region, it’s Killip’s portraits that drive the anguished mood home – the wrinkled hand gripping the side of a wall with trepidation, and the now-iconic boy with his head in his hands, curled up in his lonely distress. Given the circumstances and available options, it’s no wonder that a punk undercurrent took hold – it was a ready outlet for otherwise buried anger and energy.
A second multi-year investigation took Killip further north, to the rocky beaches of Northumberland, where washed up sea coal was being gathered by various downtrodden families on the margins. These pictures are noticeably darker, with piles of black coal and the shadowed interiors of temporary camp structures keeping the visual mood somber. While many of the photographs capture faces of dull despondency, as families walk the beaches, fill horse-drawn carts and burlap sacks with their gatherings, and trudge through drifts of snow in the dead of winter, Killip once again balances the stubborn drudgery with glimmers of hope – a pet toad, a loving parental snuggle, the play of a little dog, and the joy of a rolling hula-hoop. Even amid the squalor of burning rubbish (the campers seem to burn just about anything, including an old wood and canvas beach chair), a makeshift picnic on the dirty ground surrounded by mangy dogs somehow finds a way to feel almost normal.
Killip’s photographs from various other locations fill in the gaps between these two main story lines, often with visual juxtapositions that are closer to weary resignation than arch irony. The pairing of innocence (children) and ugliness (industrialization) is hit repeatedly, with playgrounds and neighborhood kids set against belching smokestacks and misty winding towers, the nearness of the two eliciting the same astonished horror each time the refrain is played. Other depressing realities are also added to the larger societal mix, from the huddle of glue sniffers and the used condom still life on the beach to the eroded abbey and the monument covered in graffiti and surrounded by razor wire. And Killip’s portraits of the largely unemployed young men of these towns and villages always seem to catch them in moments of in-between hanging out, where the sidewalk or the side of car offers a venue for doing nothing with savage indifference.
Killip’s photographs from this project/book deserve to be better known here in America, and the recent purchase of the entire series by the Getty (with an exhibition coming soon) will certainly help increase their exposure. In Flagrante is an exceptionally observant study of a society in the depths of a wrenching transition, and while it plumbs different emotional depths than our own touchstone landmark in this genre (Robert Frank’s The Americans), mentioning the two in the same breath raises intriguing parallels, especially in the range of emotional tones they depict.
My main takeaway from this comprehensive exhibit of In Flagrante is just how impressively consistent Killip was over the span of the entire project. In this group of 50 images, there is hardly any filler – it is simply a parade of well-crafted, gut wrenching photographs that will leave you wholly struck by the photographer’s ability to find the pressure point of a moment again and again. The pictures move elegantly back and forth between sensitivity and harshness, always on the look out for the tiny silver lining of humanity hiding underneath a very menacing, very dark cloud.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $7500 each. Killip’s work has only an intermittent history in the secondary markets in recent years, mostly in London-based sales. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $6000.