Legacy documentary for social change – Chris Killip

As well as getting us to look at the work of the Exit Photography group this part of the course also  mentions Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, and Nick Danziger‘s The British; Danziger is said to have been influenced by the work of earlier photographer Bill Brandt.

Chris Killip photographed the industrial decline in the North East during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and stated:

You didn’t have to be a genius to realise how important it was to get in and photograph it before it all fell apart…The strange thing is, I didn’t realise how quickly it would go.

The book was first published in 1988, a year that began with Margaret Thatcher becoming the longest-serving British prime minister of the century; reissued in 2016 it is described as ‘a landmark in British documentary photography.’

An article in The Guardian tells us that Killip insists that the main thrust of his book is not ‘the human fallout of Thatcherite policies in the industrial north-east of England,’ and this sentiment is echoed in an interview he gave for TIME, but it is difficult to separate the images from the social and political climate of the day. Also the fact that the original introduction has been removed, replaced with the short and matter of fact statements: ‘The photographs date from 1973 to 1985 when the prime ministers were: Edward Heath, Conservative (1970-1974), Harold Wilson, Labour (1974-1976), James Callaghan, Labour (1976-1979), Margaret Thatcher, Conservative (1979-1990).’ seems to imply a finger of blame being pointed.

Like many of those who went before, Killip embedded himself within the community, making friends with many of his subjects  and capturing many aspects of their lives, although the Photographers Gallery blurb informs us it took six years to gain the trust of the residents in Seacoal. However I also found an interview where Killip tells us it took eight

It is really interesting to read the TIME article and discover his reasons for the re-issue:

Going back to look at the original book startled me as the reproduction now looked rather grim, far too heavy in the blacks with a consequent loss of detail. At the time –1988 – the printing was the best that could be done in England.

I wouldn’t put the images across the gutter
The reproduction would have to be very good
I would find a way to solve the over identification with the “Thatcher Years”

I made the dummy images digitally and they were very high quality and I started thinking how important this quality was and as I was only using the right hand page there was no see-through coming on to another image. If the reproduction was good enough and enough space was left around the image you could just cut them out and frame them, I very much liked this possibility.

The book is very unadorned, it had become very important to me to let the images speak without interference, as I believe that they have their own eloquence and in some cases a degree of ambiguity – a mixture that leaves the work open to interpretation by the viewer.

I found it very intriguing that a book held up to be a classic is no longer ‘liked’ by the originator…I wonder how often that happens? I found another great article here which gave me the added information that all the images were ‘all made in black and white, on 4×5 film.’

Lucky enough to see some of his work on display at the Photographers Gallery when he was nominated for the Deutsche Borse photography prize 2013, I recently purchased a signed edition of SeacoalThe images definitely appear to be from another era, not one during which I was in my late teens/early 20’s, although having said that I can still connect with them due to the visual clues in some and personal memories of that decade.

The B&W photographs, even if lighter in tone, still depict a harsh, bleak environment and a difficult way of life. I sometimes think that documentary photographers never fully catch the joyous side as they get tempered by the ‘serious’ feel of monochrome.

I just popped over to my old blog to re-read a short review of his work…are my opinions the same? In some respects yes, although I think my initial response to it was due to the other bodies of work it as displayed with being so completely different in approach…and I’m still not totally convinced by Henna’s body of work, although many artists/photographers do borrow from Google Earth, or similar, and I enjoy their creativity.

Compared to the rest of the exhibition he was the only ‘straight’ photographer on display and there was a sense of comfort in looking at the ‘known.’ I think I experienced something similar when at the Feminist Avant–Garde of the 1970’s study day; when viewing such a variety of work it is easy to overlook or dismiss things you ‘don’t get’ in favour of the more familiar. I still stand by what I wrote when I said ‘the pictures still have an eloquence, a narrative and a lesson on knowing your subject. It indicates another way of working is just as valid as the newer approaches being undertaken today…’

I don’t view it as a competition, documentary should be THIS or if it’s in colour it won’t have an impact. With the change in technology and the way we now view and receive images via the internet and digital technologies, today’s generation will be used to seeing serious news in colour and ideas presented in a more abstract fashion. My son totally dismisses B&W films which is a shame as they still have a story to tell and are a valid art form. Likewise B&W photography versus colour. As time has passed I think I am even more open to the newer styles of presenting visual information but yeah…still love a bit of B&W documentary.


Killip, C. (2014) Chris Killip: In flagrante. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11145782/Chris-Killip-In-Flagrante.html?frame=3064296 (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Killip, C. (no date) Search. Available at: http://we-english.co.uk/blog/2009/03/03/chris-killip-in-flagrante/ (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Laurent, O. and Matutschovsky, N. (2016) Chris Killip’s celebrated ‘in flagrante’ makes its return. Available at: http://time.com/4185463/chris-killip-martin-parr-in-flagrante/ (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2016) In flagrante Two by Chris Killip review – bleakness and boredom in sharp focus. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/21/in-flagrante-two-review-chris-killip-thatcher-sea-coal-north-east-england-northumberland-industrial- (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Photographers’Gallery, T. (2016) Books – the photographers’ gallery. Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/seacoal (Accessed: 8 December 2016).