Photographs of a lost England

Alone on a wide, wide sea: Simon being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1983 - Chris Killip
Alone on a wide, wide sea: Simon being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1983 - Chris Killip

I first met Chris Killip in the early 1980s. He was six years older than me and a photographer I’d looked up to for some time. Back then, he was working in the North East of England, having moved up there initially, in 1975, as part of a two-year placement with the Northern Gas Board. He worked for the board for a couple of days each month, leaving him free the rest of the time to take photos of people in a part of the world that was undergoing the profound change of deindustrialisation – and the economic and social deprivation that went with it.

What set Chris apart was the warmth and dignity he brought to his scenes in the North East. He genuinely liked the people in them. He was on their side.

‘He was on their side’: Father and son watching a parade, West End, Newcastle (1980) - Chris Killip
‘He was on their side’: Father and son watching a parade, West End, Newcastle (1980) - Chris Killip

Our relationship grew much warmer as the years went by, but there was a certain cool to Chris in those early days, as if all that mattered to him was his work. He wasn’t into socialising.

My favourite picture, which I have on the wall of my study at home, is Father and Son Watching a Parade, West End, Newcastle (1980). Shot in black and white, as was his wont, it is of a man on a street, carrying his young son on his shoulders. Both of them look out of the picture to their right, watching a march go by. It’s a strange and compelling image. You can spend minutes just looking at the father’s dirty teeth and big gums. Somehow, both subjects manage to have an expression that is optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.

Bright side of life: Whippet fancier (1973) - Chris Killip
Bright side of life: Whippet fancier (1973) - Chris Killip

Chris wasn’t a photographer who simply dropped into a location, shot, and then left. He liked to really get to know a community and shoot it from the inside: he developed a rapport with his subjects, who reveal far more to him than they otherwise would have.

Chris was born on the Isle of Man in 1946. He moved to London when he grew up but, by 1970, had already been attracted back home. He worked in his father’s pub in the evenings and went photographing the island’s inhabitants and landscapes in the day. Again, there was a warmth to these pictures. He was capturing traditional rural ways of life that were slowly disappearing: farmers and fishermen who were being left behind as the Isle of Man modernised.

Intimate gaze: Susan Hyslop, Ballachrink, the Braaid (c1970-73) - Chris Killip
Intimate gaze: Susan Hyslop, Ballachrink, the Braaid (c1970-73) - Chris Killip

In style, the pictures are indebted to the American photographer Paul Strand, particularly his photos on the Hebrides in the 1950s. However, in Chris’s case, the small tight-knit community who served as his subjects were people he knew intimately, having grown up around them.

He ended his career by taking up a teaching position for more than two decades at Harvard University, before retiring in 2017, three years before his death. I was always interested in the fact that he took no photographs in the US. I once asked him why, thinking it might have had something to do with the demands of his university job.

'A different way of seeing': Girls playing in the street, Wallsend, Tyneside (1976) - Chris Killip
'A different way of seeing': Girls playing in the street, Wallsend, Tyneside (1976) - Chris Killip

However, he told me it was actually because, when you looked around the States, you saw a landscape and a people that had been amply photographed already, by the likes of Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and others. He felt there was no point doing more of the same – whereas in Britain, by contrast, he had been leading the way with his documentary work.

Chris was certainly one of the key players in post-war British photography: by looking closely and humanely at his subjects and what they stood for, he created a different way of seeing.

Close looking: Gordon in the water, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth (1983) - Chris Killip
Close looking: Gordon in the water, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth (1983) - Chris Killip

As told to Alastair Smart. Chris Killip is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London W1 (thephotographersgallery.org.uk) from October 7