Chris Killip Retrospective: Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art

Recording those that have 'Had History Done To Them'
March 17, 2023

At Mag North we’re huge supporters of the work of Documentary Photographers – together with exhibitions of their work across our patch, when they’re happening.

Arguably, this sector of the artform was first deployed in the 19th century by Phillip Delamotte, who recorded in photographs the disassembly of Crystal Palace and its subsequent move and re-erection – and in doing so, created one of the very first ‘as it happens’ records that has since been categorised as ‘Documentary Photography’.

In the mid-80s I was given a book of photographs by Robert Capa and since then have been mesmerised by both the images – and the men and women who capture them – as they set out to record moments in time. Often labelled as ‘studies of the ordinary and everyday’, in my experience they're anything but. Without doubt Capa’s 1944 waterlogged shots from the very first moments of D Day – and his unceremonious amphibious dumping on a chaotic Omaha Beach take some beating – however for balance I suppose I should also reference the ‘Falling Soldier’ he was able to 'capture' 8 years earlier on the Cordoba Front, in the Spanish Civil War. That image has been repeatedly scrutinised and debated by academics, historians and those who were there – and suggestions that it was in fact ‘staged’ are regularly mooted. Sadly neither Capa or Taro are still with us to dispel any myths around the photograph’s origin. Both were killed separately – and years apart – taking pictures in the most dangerous of war-torn locations.

Over this last year there have been some of the most far-reaching and insightful exhibitions across the North, displaying the work of a diverse range of professionals, subjects and objectives.

In August, Salt’s Mill hosted Ian Beesley’s ‘Life’ Career Retrospective. Bradford born Beesley is a world-renowned social documentary photographer who has spent much his career photographing working people and working places, particularly in the North of England. With an instantly recognisable ‘monochrome’ style, the exhibition proved to be an incredible social record – and also an unparalleled opportunity for Northerners to see their own lives reflected back at them.

Salt's Mill (Image: Mag North)

In contrast, Marc Wilson’sA Wounded Landscape’ which opened at Newcastle’s Side Gallery in February, is a harrowing – yet ultimately hopeful exhibition from an artist that for six years (between 2015-2021), has ‘borne witness to the Holocaust’. Travelling across 130 locations in 20 countries, Wilson has documented the physical traces of the Holocaust and the stories of survivors and their descendants.

Recently I was very fortunate to join a group of Blackburn-based students and academics as they visited a number of gallery and exhibition spaces in Liverpool. Perhaps most poignant for me was our visit to Open Eye Gallery, that was hosting Craig Easton’s ‘Is Anybody Listening?’.

This touring exhibition from The University of Salford, showcases two award-winning series of photographs: Bank Top and Thatcher’s Children. Easton explains that he seeks to challenge typical stereotypes of northern communities through authentic representation. He is also committed to raise aspirations of young people within the region through an accompanying engagement programme called Our Time, Our Place.

Easton was named Photographer of the Year (2021) at the Sony World Photography Awards for his Bank Top work. Commissioned by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, the photographer worked with writer, poet and social researcher Abdul Aziz Hafiz and together they focused on a small, tight-knit community in Blackburn. Being present as people from Blackburn studied images of their own community, displayed in the creative landscape of a waterfront gallery in Liverpool, demonstrated a textbook example of juxtaposition. 

'Is Anybody Listening?' Open Eye Gallery (Image: Mag North)

Before ‘Photie Man’ – a new major retrospective exhibition from internationally-acclaimed Irishman Tom Wood, which showcases his iconic images of Liverpool from the past 50 years and brings together his work for the first time in the city – opens at The Walker Gallery in mid-May, Mag North is first returning to the banks of the Tyne – and ultimately the ground-breaking work of Amber Collective and Side Gallery.

From 1 April, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art are presenting a full-career retrospective of work by one of the UK’s most important and influential post-war documentary photographers, Chris Killip (1946-2020).

Killip was a founding member, exhibition curator and advisor at Side Gallery, as well as its director, from 1977-79. Amongst his many plaudits and achievements, he received the Henri Cartier Bresson Award (which takes us back to Capa, Omaha Beach and ultimately the creation of Magnum Photos in 1947) and he was subsequently invited in 1991 to be a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University.

Grounded in his sustained immersion into the communities he photographed, Killip's photographs of those affected by economic shifts throughout the 1970s and 80s in the North of England remain without parallel. Whilst marking a moment of deindustrialisation, Killip's stark yet tender observation moves beyond the urgency to record such circumstances, to affirm the value of lives he grew close to – lives that, as he once described 'had history done to them', who felt history's malicious disregard and yet, like the photographer himself, refused to yield or look away.

From early work made in his native Isle of Man, through overlapping series’ made over two decades in the North of England, Killip's approach to portraying communities is explored by Baltic. Against a background of shipbuilding and coal mining, he witnessed the togetherness of communities and the industries that sustained them and stayed long enough to see their loss.  

At Lynemouth, for his series ‘Seacoal’, he photographed men on horse-driven carts reclaiming coal which had been discarded into the sea by a nearby mine, and at Skinningrove he documented a group of young men, their friendships and labours as they waited for the tide to turn.

The exhibition, curated by Tracy Marshall -Grant and Ken Grant, also draws upon less familiar work by a photographer whose life and career has proved so influential in shaping British photography. Killip's dedicated recording of the miners' strike of 1984-5 and his engagement with shipbuilding a decade earlier, remain lesser known yet pivotal works that betrayed not only a changing economy, but the concerns of a photographer moved to witness them. In dialogue with the prints made by the photographer towards the end of his life, the exhibition also considers Killip's photo books, drawing on early maquettes to map the development of books acknowledged as landmark.

The exhibition is accompanied by a major monograph co-published with Thames and Hudson, edited by Ken Grant and Tracy Marshall- Grant and designed by Niall Sweeney. The book includes a foreword by Brett Rogers, in depth essays by Ken Grant and texts by Amanda Maddox, Greg Halpern and Lynsey Hanley.

The exhibition, runs 1 April – 3 September

All Chris Killip Images: © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos, courtesy of Martin Parr Foundation