'the past and other countries: chris killip in conversation with michael almereyda,' from Aperture Magazine, New York, Fall 2012, Issue 208.
Chris Killip's photographs - black and white, crisply detailed, at once lush and stark - tend to center on working-class people, hard-pressed citizens on the job and at rest. We see them collecting sea coal, toiling in a tire factory, or withdrawn into attitudes of wariness, disenchantment, exhaustion. The weight of the world is upon them, more often than not, and this pressure, beraring down on vividly particular faces, bodies, and landscapes, can be taken to be Killip's abiding subject. Arbeit/Work, a retrospective exhibition of 116 photographs made between 1969 and 2005 - many of them never before exhibited - adds up to nothing less than a grand group portrait of postwar Great Britain operating in the long shadow of imperial decline. But the pictures convey considerably more than a bleak historical chronical or sociological report. Killip imbues his subjects and scenes with a sense of urgency, mystery, and radiance. In his greatest work, he seems to deliver more than a photograph can be expected to communicate or contain: hard evidence of the human soul, flickering like embers in a heap of ashes.
Arbeit/Work originated at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, in February, 2012, accompanied by a richly illustrated book with a text by David Campany. The exhibition travels to Le Bal in Paris, where it will be presented through August 15.
The Foillowing interview was excerpted from a conversation conducted in Killip's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an easy stroll from Harvard University, where the photographer has taught for the pass twenty-one years. -M.A.
Michael Almereyda: When you were approached to mount a retrospective of your work, what flashed into your head?
Chris Killip: Pleasure at the thought. Nobody had ever asked me to do this before. I am fond of and familiar with Ute Eskildsen from the Folkwang Museum, and it was her suggestion. She is a person that I respect greatly. I couldn't do it with many other people; I don't trust other people in the way that I trust her.
MA: I know that your original selection of images was very spare, and she helped fill it out.
CK: Well, it was a process. I'd never gone back to my archive and looked at what I'd done, and Ute made me rethink. My book In Flagrante was published in 1988, and every curator of every exhibiton that I've been in since has referred back to that book. Ute was the first to say: "What didn't you publish? What else is there?" It was a great pleasure, but also a great task, which took more than two years, to go through the archive. I also digitized everything while I was doing this, thought about it, printed pictures in different ways.
MA: Why don't we take a specific case?
CK: There is an image from 1977 called Celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee: I like the picture very much. But I can remember processing and printing it, looking at the contact and thinking: "Oh, my God, I can't show this." There's a very old lady who has been made up for the occasion by her friends: they've powdered her face but they've been rather overzealous, and the flash has hit her overpowdered face, and, as my cousin would say, "She looks like they dug her up." I remember thinking at the time: I can't show anybody this image, it's just too strange. Now I don't think that. The picture is such a supercharged Martin Parr-ish image, with the Union Jack in the background and people smiling, and the words The Queen's Silver Jubilee right there.
MA: Your work often has a political undercurrent - if not an explicit acknowledgment of the political situation.
CK: Well, it would, wouldn't it? I mean, I was living in the industrial community of Newcastle, starting in the mid-1970s. I remember the editor of the Saturday magazine of the Sunday Telegraph asking me to photograph the men from the miners' strike. I didn't want to do the story for them because it is such a right-wing newspaper. He asked me which side was I on? I was quite shocked by the question. It had never occured to me that I could be on anything other than the side I was on!
MA: But including political elements in your work is not about picking sides; it's about openly saying that your work, your worldview, is conditioned by historical forces.
CK: It was natural. I had no wish to deny it. I was also influenced by John Berger's TV program Ways of Seeing. I was so excited by that. I was just trying to understand then that no matter what you did, you inevitably had a political position. How declared it was was up to you, but it was going to be inherent in the work, and it was something you should think about as a maker. I never worried about my poosition in the art world. I thought time and history would ultimately judge me, that my job was to get on with it, to make the work and to make it wholeheartedly from what had informed me.
MA: Was there another photographer who pointed in that direction?
CK: Maybe the least obvious - and the most obvious - would be Walker Evans. It was Evan's coolness, about surviving McCarthyism, and all the things that Evans survived; and still you knew he had a distinct political position: it was in the work. Evans gave me a great heart about that. He had navigated much more difficult circumstances that I had. In America, he had to live through a much more charged political situation than the liberalism of England. In America, it's much more of a minefield for people who are not of the Right.
MA: I never thought of him having to negotiate that. He seemed so entrenched when he was working at Fortune magazine. It's interesting to think that he was actually in a perilious situation.
CK: Well, the man who made The Crime of Cuba  had to be very careful. Evans never spoke about his politics, because McCarthy was right behind him - and all the evidence against him was there.
[*See note below]
MA: How do you see your political awareness coming through in specific images?
CK: One picture is of a burned-out block of flats in Newcastle. Some people have got their clothes drying on the balcony, and somebody else has got flowers in their window. I think it's so strange, this optimism. This was a specific moment - 1976 - in Newcastle history, when some people in poublic housing were burning themselves out of their homes in order to get rehoused. My interest was in the people who didn't. But at that time, my pictures were known to Newcastle City Council, whose leader at a council meeting stated (it's in the minutes of the meeting) that my work was never to be exhibited at any council-controlled musuem or gallery in Newcastle, because I was showing the "wrong" image of Newcastle.
MA: You were close with a lot of the people in the pictures you took. That's been an important ingredient in what you do.
CK: Yes. I remember speaking with Josef Koudelka in 1975 about why I should stay in Newcastle. Josef said that you could bring in six Magnum photographers, and they could stay and photograph for six weeks - and he felt that inevitably their photographs would have a sort of similarity. As good as they were, their photographs wouldn't get beyond a certain point. But if you stayed for two years, your pictures would be different, and if you stayed for three years they would be different again. You could get under the skin of a place and do something different, because you were then photographing from the inside. I understood what he was talking about. I stayed in Newcastle for fifteen years. I mean, to get the access to photograph the sea-coal workers took eight years. You do get embroiled in a place.
MA: Let's talk aobut some of the other images that you retrieved.
CK: There is a picture of a man who reminds me so much of my father and my father's friends. I look at him, and I recognize him as a working-class man with a trade. How can I know this? I know it insinctively. Something about his attitude and his look and his unabashed stare: he is looking directly at me and questioning me. My father has also served an apprenticeship in his trade as a fitter before he had a pub. Both are men of pride. I didn't publish this picture when I took it, because I didn't think this was so important. Now I think differently.
MA: The children seem kind of innocent of it.
CK: They could be innocent of it, but they're not unaffected by it. Your innocence can't last. Bigotry is powerful.
[*Aperture edited the following paragraph about Strands's lifelong affiliation with communism out of the interview:
All Images © Chris Killip, 1970-2016.