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Exhibitions Apocalyptic visions

JOHN GREEN recommends the exhibitions of work by two of Britain’s most important and influential post-war documentary photographers

20/20: Chris Killip/Graham Smith
Augusta Edwards Fine Art
Chris Killip, retrospective
The Photographers' Gallery
Chris Killip 1946-2020, Thames & Hudson, £50

 

LITTLE do many realise, when they visit the affluent towns and villages of south-east England or London’s crowded shopping centres that they are experiencing a country very different from the one they would find in the north of our “sceptred isle.”

The photographs of the late Chris Killip and Graham Smith are a shocking reminder of that “other country.”

Both are known largely for documenting the people, and places devastated by industrial vandalism carried out by successive governments in north-east England from the late 1970s to mid-’80s.

Their work was last displayed together in the exhibition, Another Country, at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1985. Their photographs are being exhibited together in Britain for the first time in nearly 40 years at the Augusta Edwards Fine Art Gallery.

A retrospective of Killip’s work is being shown at the Photographers’ Gallery at the same time to coincide with the publication of a monograph of his work co-published with Thames and Hudson: Chris Killip 1946-2020.
 
The black-and-white photographs in the above first mentioned exhibition document north-east England during a period when heavy industry was still thriving, followed by an unforeseen and devastating collapse.

Killip and Smith each selected 20 images for the exhibition taken between in the ’70s and ’80s. The photographers documented the individuals and communities whose lives depended on heavy industry, people who were facing a politically imposed change to the communities and their way of life that had been little changed for generations.

These incredibly powerful photos by two of Britain’s leading documentary photographers are not to be missed. These men not only know their patch intimately but have a deep empathy with those whose lives have been impacted by de-industrialisation.

Their images could have come from the 19th century but were taken in the late 20th. They show us a people deserted and forgotten, far removed from the cosy Westminster, Chelsea and Islington drawing rooms of the metropolitan elite.

Each image is a narrative in itself and there are too many to detail here, but I will mention a few: A young girl twirling a hoola-hoop on waste ground, littered with smashed bathroom ware and an overturned armchair, framed by a slag heap and the wild sea evokes desolation and abandonment; a punk with spiky Mohican haircut, his face contorted with anger expresses what many must feel about their blighted lives; and one of Killick’s most iconic images is of three girls standing in an empty street in Wallsend, Tyneside (1976)).

Towering above them and the small, terraced houses is the hull of an enormous ship: The Pride, surrounded by a grey mist. This area was once a centre of engineering and ship-building skills, with a workforce steeped in working-class pride and a strong sense of community and solidarity. All was smashed by callous and ideologically motivated governments.

There are several of Lynemouth, taken for his series Seacoal, where Killip photographed men on horse-drawn carts and wading into the spume, to reclaim small nuggets of coal washed inshore by the sea.

Family on a Sunday walk, Skinningrove, 1982 depicts a couple and their two children wandering over what could be a post-apocalypse landscape but was once a thriving fishing village.

Youth on a wall in Jarrow (1975) — the town well-known for its hunger march in 1936 — this intimate portrait of a teenage boy hunkered down on a wall, his threadbare, ill-fitting jacket spattered with paint or bird shit, his knees drawn up, his Doc Marten boots resting on the top of the wall, and his face, full of pain half concealed by his chapped hands. The image captures the pain still felt here almost 40 years after that march and its cry for help.

The exhibition also draws on less familiar work by Killip whose life and career proved highly influential in shaping British photography. His dedicated recording of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and his engagement with shipbuilding a decade earlier remain lesser known yet are pivotal works that portrayed not only a changing society, but the concerns of a photographer moved to witness them.

In a publication accompanying the exhibition, Smith discusses the process of creating the exhibition with Killip: “We talked about the conception of Another Country, its power and an aspect we later considered a failing of intent, albeit peripheral. But we also recognised how the passing of 34 years had touched many of our pictures, some dating back to the early-’70s, with relevance beyond expectation.”

Killip and Smith first met in the summer of 1975 when their paths converged through Amber Films, a film and photography collective in Newcastle upon Tyne. A close and lifelong friendship followed.

In 1991, their works were shown alongside three other photographers at MoMA, New York, under the controversial title British Photography from the Thatcher Years.

Following a backlash from some British newspapers and the effect it had on individuals and their community portrayed in Smith’s images, he stepped back from the public arena of photography.
 
The retrospective exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery of more than 140 works, is the most comprehensive of the photographer’s work to date and includes previously unseen ephemera and colour works.

Taken together, these two exhibitions and the monograph present us with an apocalyptic vision of what could be facing the whole country, not just the north, if our present government is allowed to pursue its policies of pauperisation for the many.

20/20: Chris Killip/Graham Smith, Augusta Edwards Fine Art, 8
Cromwell Place, London SW7 2JE, runs until November 6 2022 — Wed-Sat 10am-6pm and Sun 10am-4pm
. Phone: 020 8057 1830, by appointment only. Free.
Chris Killip opens at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW, runs until February 19 2023. Box office: thephotographersgallery.org.uk, 020 7087 9300 (18s and under free, every Friday free from 5pm). An accompanying book, Chris Killip 1946-2020 is published by Thames & Hudson, £50.

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