A TIMELY PIC­TURE OF ‘NOW THEN’

Chris Kil­lip tells the sto­ries be­hind his im­ages of the scrappy lives and towns of his na­tive Eng­land

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - BY CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA the im­ages them­selves, of­fer­ing tales of il­licit horse rac­ing, a mourn­ful fish­er­man’s rit­ual and some odd nights at a punk club. carolina.mi­randa@la­times.com Twit­ter: @cmon­stah

When Chris Kil­lip de­cided to be­come a pho­tog­ra­pher at age 17, he had never taken a pic­ture. “I didn’t own a cam­era,” he re­calls. “No­body in my fam­ily had cam­eras.”

But see­ing a sin­gle im­age by sem­i­nal French lens­man Henri Cartier-Bres­son per­suaded him that pho­tog­ra­phy was what he needed to be do­ing.

“I was look­ing at the pic­tures of the Tour de France in Paris Match and I came across this photo by Bres­son: ‘Rue Mouf­fe­tard, Paris,’ ” Kil­lip says, re­fer­ring to Cartier-Bres­son’s 1954 im­age of a buoy­ant lit­tle boy car­ry­ing bot­tles of wine. “It re­ally puz­zled me. Why did it have such an al­lure? I couldn’t have said any­thing about it ex­cept that it had a grip on me.”

It was the 1960s and at that moment Kil­lip, who was born in Eng­land on the Isle of Man, gave up on his fa­ther’s dream of learning ho­tel man­age­ment and be­gan tak­ing pic­tures — first as a beach pho­tog­ra­pher at a lo­cal re­sort, then as an as­sis­tant to com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers in Lon­don. A fate­ful trip to New York that in­cluded a visit to the photo col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in­spired him to take pic­tures “for its own sake.” Kil­lip wanted to make art. A grant ul­ti­mately led him to north­east­ern Eng­land in the 1970s, where he be­gan to pho­to­graph old towns that had once been home to coal mines and mills but which were at that moment in a pe­riod of steep de­cline.

“I had this very big plate glass cam­era with a very big flash,” Kil­lip says via tele­phone from Har­vard Univer­sity, where he has taught for 26 years (and from which he is about to re­tire). “I looked like some­thing that had fallen out of the 1950s. I was very vis­i­ble.”

De­spite the con­spic­u­ous getup, Kil­lip nonethe­less was able to cap­ture vivid slices of daily life: men fish­ing, kids play­ing, punks danc­ing, scav­engers gath­er­ing coal on a beach.

“They are at the tough end of things, the peo­ple in my pho­to­graphs,” Kil­lip says. “It’s about the strug­gle for work, be­ing out of work, fight­ing for work.”

Im­ages from those series were gath­ered in the book “In Fla­grante” in 1988, which has been de­scribed as “the most im­por­tant book of English pho­tog­ra­phy from the 1980s.”

The book was re-re­leased by Steidl last year — and Kil­lip’s pho­to­graphs (along with con­tact sheets and other ephemera) are on view at the Getty Mu­seum, in the ex­hi­bi­tion “Now Then: Chris Kil­lip and the Mak­ing of ‘In Fla­grante.’ ”

The ex­hi­bi­tion couldn’t come at a more poignant time in the United States — where is­sues of de-in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and poverty are now on the po­lit­i­cal front burner.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are other par­al­lels too. As oc­curred in his na­tive Eng­land, Kil­lip says U.S. politi­cians are not con­tend­ing with the is­sue of de-in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in forth­right ways.

“To talk about re­vi­tal­iz­ing coal min­ing is cuck­ooland,” he says. “The min­ers’ strike in Eng­land in 1984 wasn’t about money. It was about what are you going to re­place it with when you close it down? … You can’t go back to how things were. But how can you plan on a bet­ter fu­ture for more peo­ple? I don’t see this hap­pen­ing.”

Kil­lip’s pho­to­graphs are rich with his­tory and with sto­ries. The pho­tog­ra­pher took time to tell the sto­ries be­hind seven of his pho­to­graphs — and they are as good as

Cart and horse

Kil­lip spent years doc­u­ment­ing a com­mu­nity of work­ers who har­vested loose coal from a beach in Lynemouth, a coastal vil­lage in north­east­ern Eng­land. The coal was the detri­tus left by a lo­cal min­ing con­cern. Ini­tially, the artist was chased off the beach when­ever he showed up with his cam­era. But he was even­tu­ally al­lowed ac­cess af­ter a tow­er­ing lo­cal fig­ure named Trevor Critchlow in­ter­vened.

In the pho­to­graph “Gor­don and Critch’s Cart,” the pho­tog­ra­pher cap­tures a friend of Critchlow’s named Gor­don, who is har­vest­ing the coal that bobs around the surf. “He’s watch­ing me pho­to­graph him,” says Kil­lip. “Gor­don I knew very well.”

The tech­nique used by the “sea­coalers,” as they are called, was some­thing that im­me­di­ately caught the artist’s eye when he landed in the area.

“Coal floats,” he ex­plains. “And they have this wire mesh net that they use to cap­ture the coal. It was a very strange sight be­cause they are us­ing horses and carts and it seems so 19th cen­tury. But the ground in that area is very soft and ve­hi­cles could sink, so horses and carts were prefer­able.”

The very good coat

Over time, Kil­lip not only pho­tographed the sea-coalers, he came to live among them in an en­camp­ment on the edge of town. There, he be­came good friends with a cou­ple named Brian and Rosie Lai­dler, who of­ten fed him din­ner de­spite their lim­ited means. Stay­ing with the Lai­dlers for a time was a wo­man named Moira, whom Kil­lip cap­tured har­vest­ing coal in a fur coat, an im­age that is as much about form and tex­tures as it is a story of sur­vival.

“It seems quite ironic in this very nice fur coat to be pick­ing coal,” says Kil­lip. “[Moira had] got­ten it from her mother who didn’t wear it any­more. And it was al­ways re­ferred to as ‘the very good fur coat.’ ”

A story of place

Kil­lip’s pho­to­graphs cap­ture not just peo­ple but the set­tings in which they lived. In 1976 in York­shire, he snapped a photo of a row house be­fore a coal plant. It is strik­ing for its de­tail: the soot-filled air, the rows of old doors used as a gar­den fence, the happy Christ­mas or­na­ment that hangs over the row house door.

“As I was tak­ing the pic­ture, this lit­tle face ap­peared in the win­dow,” he re­mem­bers. “I have one without any­one in it and the one with the child in it. And [the lat­ter is] a much bet­ter pic­ture. It makes the build­ing a home.”

“In­ter­est­ingly, that’s the coal mine that the sculp­tor Henry Moore’s fa­ther would have been a coal miner,” he adds. “Moore writes quite mov­ingly about watch­ing his mother bathe his fa­ther in a tin tub in the house. See­ing his body there like that, that made him in­ter­ested in the hu­man form.”

A frigid walk

Kil­lip’s pho­tos have an aus­tere beauty to them — such as the im­age of a man nick­named “Cookie” pur­pose­fully walk­ing through a snow­storm. But the sto­ries be­hind them can be quite hu­mor­ous.

“Cookie was one of the peo­ple I was very friendly with,” Kil­lip says. “It was a Sun­day morn­ing and his horse, Creamy, had just won a trot­ting race against guys from town. He’d won a 1,000 pounds. The race takes place very early so the po­lice aren’t around. Then we go to the pub — at half past 7 in the morn­ing — and the drinks are on Cookie be­cause he has all of this money.

“Walk­ing back to camp, I knew Cookie had to come back that way. I put the cam­era on the tri­pod, and I’m sway­ing quite a bit be­cause I’m drunk. But I knew ex­actly when I was going to take the pic­ture of him. He didn’t lift his head. I took that one pic­ture, just one frame.”

Punk rock

As part of his doc­u­men­ta­tion, Kil­lip caught punk’s sec­ond wave, in the ’80s. In the pic­ture “Dance, Gateshead” from 1986, he cap­tures kids in fre­netic mid­mosh.

“[The club] was lo­cated in a for­mer po­lice so­cial club,” he re­calls of the space. “It was in town, but the build­ings around it had been de­mol­ished, so it felt very iso­lated. Most of the kids were un­em­ployed, and this place was very cheap. They charged only like a dol­lar to go in, and they were com­mit­ted to the lo­cal bands and bands from

north­ern Eng­land. It’s punk re­vival — an­ar­cho-punk.

“I went there quite a few times, and no­body ever asked me who I was,” he adds with a laugh. “They were all about 18 to about 25 or 26. I was 40. And I would wear the same gray suit and white T-shirt, and I car­ried the big cam­era with the flash — and no one thought to ques­tion my pres­ence. They must have thought I was in­ter­est­ing or an id­iot.”

Rev­er­ent rit­ual

“Now Then” is rife with poignant im­ages — per­haps none more so than the pho­to­graph of a young boy named Si­mon be­ing taken out to sea by boat in the wake of his fa­ther’s drown­ing death.

“That was in Skin­ningrove,” says Kil­lip. “It was a fish­ing vil­lage, and it was very dif­fi­cult to gain ac­cess to pho­to­graph there. Si­mon’s fa­ther had drowned in an in­ci­dent at sea. They had this rit­ual where they came out and took Si­mon out to sea so that he wouldn’t be­come fear­ful of it. It’s very for­mal. He’s dressed very for­mally. I was on the boat and no­body spoke.”

A sense of pur­pose

Kil­lip says that Lynemouth, where the sea-coalers worked, was a “tough place, but it wasn’t an un­happy place.”

“There was lots of en­ergy and lots of fun,” he adds. “There was ri­valry and en­thu­si­asms and pas­sions. Peo­ple were not de­spair­ing. It was a very com­plex com­mu­nity and with a great sense of pur­pose, which was: Get the coal and make money. And I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in places that had pur­pose.”

He cap­tures this in an im­age of a young girl named He­len, who plays on a couch that has been left on the beach. “She was the sec­ond youngest of Brian and Rosie’s chil­dren,” he says. “She had very good move­ment, al­ways mov­ing and danc­ing. She is a grown wo­man now with teenagers.”

Chris Kil­lip

“Si­mon Be­ing Taken Out to Sea For the First Time Since His Fa­ther Drowned”

“Gor­don and Critch’s Cart”

Chris Kil­lip

“He­len (up­side down), Brian, Ali­son, and Rosie”

Chris Kil­lip The J. Paul Getty Mu­seum

“‘Cookie’ in the Snow”

Chris Kil­lip

Chris Kil­lip The J. Paul Getty Mu­seum

“Ter­raced House and Coal Mine”

Chris Kil­lip The J. Paul Getty Mu­seum

“Dance, Gateshead”

Chris Kil­lip

“Moira Hand Pick­ing in the Very Good Fur Coat”

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