Chris Killip, The Station/The Last Ships/Skinningrove/Portraits

JTF (just the facts): A set of four tabloid-sized, unbound newsprint zines co-published in 2018 by the artist and Pony (here). Each is sized roughly 15×11 inches and has a tinted color cover.

  • The Station: 32 pages, 22 black and white photographs, with a list of band names. Images made in 1985.
  • The Last Ships: 28 pages, 25 black and white photographs (with captions). Images made in Tyneside between 1975 and 1977.
  • Skinningrove: 32 pages, 34 black and white photographs (most with captions). Images made in North Yorkshire between 1981 and 1984. Includes an explanatory text on the back cover.
  • Portraits: 32 pages, 26 black and white photographs. Images made between 1970 and 1989.

(Cover and spread shots for each below.)

Comments/Context: For many photographers who were primarily active during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, a likely end point for their artistic efforts was a group of small, black and white prints on the walls of a gallery. And while this particular setting had the desired effect of making visitors understand that this was indeed serious art, the rigidity of the presentation structure made it hard to explore other potential ways to connect with the audience. This mismatch was particularly apparent when the work itself didn’t entirely benefit from or even tolerate such strict formality.

So when Chris Killip’s son unearthed a box on contact prints from the photographer’s 1985 series The Station, Killip’s ingrained instinct was to make a photobook dummy that looked like a gallery show – small single images on white pages. But when the first self-published draft came back, it was all wrong, and he knew it. The pictures needed to be much bigger, and the design needed to capture the seething energy of his subject.

This moment of insight generally coincided with an installation of the work in a group show last year at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (here). Unlike what we might have expected from Killip, he contributed twelve large scale prints (40×50 inches), and with these massive enlargements, he found the dramatic intensity he had been searching for. Along with the show, he self-published (with design and production help from Pony Ltd.) a tabloid-sized zine of the work. The newsprint version of The Station crashes and smashes with verve and vitality, the chaotic energy of the club bursting forth from the oversized pages. The sweaty, muscular dancing/fighting of the crowded punk mosh pits is brashly visceral, and the underground guerrilla spirit of the zine format perfectly matches the mohawks and the studded leather jackets in the pictures.

When the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle put up a permanent installation of Killip’s well-regarded The Last Ships last fall, he returned to this zine format to make a low-cost newspaper takeaway for visitors (Killip donated 1000 copies so they could be sold at the museum for a very reasonable £3). Leveraging the same general design as The Station (its bold double stripe graphic element a nod to Erich Mendelsohn’s 1926 AMERIKA), the large scale of The Last Ships zine gives Killip’s mid-1970s images of shipbuilding in Tyneside more physical heft and presence. Massive hulls and towering cranes dwarf the small brick rowhouses, the immense scale of the industrial enterprise almost hard to fathom or believe. A combined sense of wonder and local pride permeates many of the smartly composed images, but when the docks close and the jobs dry up, the rubbish in the streets and the disaffected faces tell a harder and more personal story of the abstract de-industrialization taking place. While we have seen these excellent images before, their rebirth in zine form gives them a more democratic feel, like they are part of a collective regional history meant to be shared and remembered.

Having hit upon a successful publishing formula, Killip has since extended the zine effort to two more projects. In the early 1980s, Killip turned his camera to the fishing communities along the rocky North Sea coast, particularly the town of Skinningrove. While it took persistence to earn the trust of the private residents, his patience was rewarded, and his images from this period are full of the nuances and contradictions of life on the coast. Young men smoke cigarettes and mend nets, others haul in boats, and kids idle and play on the beaches, the pace seeming to mimic the slow roll of the waves. Hard work is balanced by frequent lulls and boredom, the limited opportunities and closed in feel leaving traces of disaffection etched in the faces. Killip’s photographs treat these communities with honesty and empathy, observing and documenting everyday human struggles that had been largely overlooked. The zine format both enlarges the images, giving the ones that contain the sea a broader expansiveness, and allowed Killip to make a personal memorial of sorts. The artist pushed a free copy of Skinningrove through every mail slot in town last November, as a tribute to the fishermen in the images who have since drowned.

The final zine in the set gathers together a selection of Killip’s portraits. Here again, the larger scale of the publication gives the photographs more room to stretch out, their subtle details and open trust becoming more apparent. The choices touch on classic Killip images (the father carrying his son on his shoulders, the anguished young boy sitting on the wall, the dangling feet) as well as pictures from the Isle of Man and the seacoal camps in Lynemouth. The portraits were being gathered for a potential future exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery; that show was later shelved, but Killip went ahead anyway with his own publication. This zine fills out his improvised career sampler quite effectively, getting us right up close to a survey of richly engaging faces.

While Killip’s work has always been consistently strong, and likely under appreciated outside the United Kingdom, this re-imagining effort feels lively and creative. The tabloid-style zines are deliberately egalitarian and inclusive – they are a warm, welcoming gesture that says “come and see these pictures” whoever you are, without the pretensions and exclusions of the art world. And in many instances, the larger size and newsprint casualness are a better fit with the subject matter and tone of the images. While a serious monograph or retrospective volume will always have a place in the library, these kinds of experiments in broadening the availability of great photography are worth following. They make engagement easy, and that commitment to openness is worth celebrating.

Collector’s POV: Chris Killip is represented in Boston by Howard Yezerski Gallery (here). 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 $15000.

Chris Killip, Pony Ltd., Self Published

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Excellent write up. The work is completely re-invigorated.

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