I was in LA—Beverly Hills actually—for a weekend and decided to take a looksee around The Getty. I don’t really have much to say about the permanent collection but I was very pleased to see their show of Chris Killip’s In Flagrante.
Killip’s documentary photos around northern England in the 1970s and 1980s are fantastic as just historical documents but they’re also especially interesting in terms of how they were made. Instead of the typical social documentary unobtrusive Leica rig, Killip shot with a handheld Linhof 4×5. That’s just insane to me in terms of both how it severely limited his ability to blow through exposures and in how it’s anything but unobtrusive.
The large negative meant that he could crop and rotate images without suffering any grain issues on the print. There was a wonderful section of work prints and contact sheets which demonstrated how he worked through his negatives before creating prints. And the amount of access he had with that large camera demonstrates the degree to which he’d embedded himself in these communities.
This isn’t a photographer parachuting into a place. Killip has gained the trust of these communities—many of which are very private or defensive— and as a result is able to take amazingly gritty but humane photographs as they struggle with deindustrialization and the resulting anxiety which comes from not having an obvious trade to practice.
It’s tempting to view these as being about the bleakness of the Thatcher years but Killip’s view isn’t to critique Thatcher but rather highlight the way people are having to survive as their economies collapse and transform into something else. The photos aren’t about suffering or blame, they’re about coping and living and to a certain extent, remembering these jobs and communities before they’re completely lost.
We see how people are still working and making ends meet. We see how the kids play and how families stick together. We see how they live and the harshness of their lives deserves our empathy.
We also get to look at these in a time when very similar changes are going on in the US. Factories are closing. And if they’re not closing, they’re being automated. Factory towns are dying. As much as “economic anxiety” is often a euphemism for racism there is truth there as well. People don’t know what their next gig will be or where they’ll be able to get money from. Plus a ton of the people being affected aren’t white anyway.
One of the best parts of this show though is in how it shows Killip returning to his 1980 project and spinning two additional projects out of it. I love this idea that even if you’ve locked a good project up that you can always come back to parts of it and use those as the cornerstones for something new.
Seacoal and Skinningrov are both wonderful little series of photos in and of themselves. They serve to provide context to some of the images in In Flagrante but they also demonstrate how a deep dive and immersion into a community makes it hard to truly delete photos. Instead of being about the general sense of things at the time, these two additional projects document specific communities and how they’re coping with the changes going on.