We went to the exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, and I picked up the accompanying retrospective (Amazon, Bookshop.org). I was expecting something of a diatribe, but I discovered his work to be far richer and welcoming. He certainly has an ideological point of view, and is not shy about it, but his empathy and deep connection to his subjects makes for strong work that invites the viewer in. (It’s interesting to compare his work to Martin Parr’s, which I also enjoy, but feels detached from his subjects, and confronts the viewer rather than reaching out to them.)
People at ease
The early shots from the Isle of Man feature many portraits of people leaning against walls, door frames or gates – their home or farms or places of work. They look comfortable, like you might know them.
It looks easy (at ease) but I think this is the result of a lot of work on Killip’s part gaining the trust of his subjects, and working the portrait with them. They are collaborative images.
Living in Seacoal
When photographing on Seacoal Beach, he famously spent many years trying to get access to this very private community, eventually winning them over and making friends there. He even lived in a caravan on the beach for a while so he could be more deeply embedded. The quality of the images he made shows this depth of communion with the people he was showing. They’re not heroised or pitied, or portrayed through glib archetypes. Their lives feel complex and real.
When I was looking at the pictures of Skinningrove, I noticed many of the same elements appearing again and again in the background. I pulled up the area on Google Maps and was easily able to place where many of the images had been made. It was remarkable to see such a variety of life played out in such a small place.
As a viewer, I felt as I do when I look at photos of my own life and family. There’s a connectedness and sometimes nostalgia that comes from seeing different people, at different stages of their lives, acting on the same stage.
Would you go back without your camera?
Gregory Halpern, in a short essay at the end of the book, hits on a truth in Killip’s approach that shines through in this work:
One of my most distinct memories of Chris is from an early time I showed him work – portraits I had made of strangers on the other side of Boston, far from Harvard. ‘Would you ever go back to visit these people,’ Chris asked, pausing before adding, ‘without your camera?’ I remember being a bit startled by the question, and slightly ashamed. Going back without my camera hadn’t occurred to me. My notion of a great photographer at that point was something akin to an explorer, whose success was measured by how well they extracted images.
Chris, of course, had a very different idea of how to measure a photographer’s success, and spent a lot of his time talking about things that were bigger than photography. He spent a lifetime photographing in places where he had built relationships, where there was trust and respect. That dynamic is the first thing I see when look at Chris’s pictures, both in the way he looked at the people in front of his camera, and in the way they looked back at him.
I thought this was an astonishing critique. Maybe I am like a naive young Halpern, but I do think the extractive mode is the norm, especially in genres like street. What does an embedded street photography look like?
A solid recommendation for this book.
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