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A letter home: The early life of photographer Chris Killip

Posted on 10 Nov 2022

In this extract from 'Chris Killip', Ken Grant explores the photographer's coming of age in his native Isle of Man. Killip's images have come to be recognized as some of the most important visual records of 1980s Britain.

Bever, Skinningrove, N. Yorkshire, 1983 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos.

Beyond the black fingers of Langness, heavy grey knuckles of stone still push through the grasses at the southern tip of the Isle of Man. Some of that land has now eroded to nearly nothing. Where it meets the spit and spray of the Irish Sea, in the place the Manx once called Oaie Ny Baatyn Marroo, the Graveyard of the Lost Ships, there are gaps in time and geology that might cast doubt that an era existed at all. Yet its name, Langness, kept now as it was in Norse, quietly affirms that things did happen here, as clearly as languages speak to the contests a land has endured. Trouble came here, blowing in on difficult seas.

When Chris Killip photographed Langness Rocks in 1971, he did so with a careful, deliberate approach that resisted the fluid tendencies of the time. He already knew that changes were reshaping the island. It had long been popular among working-class holidaymakers, who filled ferryboats from Liverpool and Dublin to sing in the bars of Douglas and Port Erin in the week-long revelries chronicled by the Irish singer Barney Rushe in ‘The Craic was Ninety in the Isle of Man’. But the lure of European holidays in the 1960s tempered the island’s buoyancy, causing the Tynwald to contemplate new economies. By 1968, the island had begun to advertise itself as a tax haven, attracting banks like Barclays, NatWest International and Coutts. As the century aged, the population grew and a peasant culture that had long worked the land and sea was joined by many working in financial enterprise, establishing two distinct Isles of Man, one of which was threatened.

Chris Killip’s consideration of the land of his birth was shaped by an early sense of belonging that would bring strength and surety to decisions in later life. Christopher David Killip was born while  his parents managed the Highlander pub, on the main Douglas to Peel Road, on 11 July 1946. It was the first of three pubs his father Alan and mother Molly ran during his childhood. As a five-year old at St John’s School, he would follow his teacher, Miss Mary Wattleworth, on weekly nature walks that nurtured a curiosity for the land and wildlife, with each trip more animated as she reached the school perimeter, turned a corner and lit her first Woodbine cigarette. Weekend family car trips across the island instilled an appreciation for the perfect situation of homes. The glens, curraghs and forests had matured and made their own laws, before giving way to ploughed fields and farms long kept by the same families. They could be named, as readily as millers, crops and the workers who gathered for harvests. Some journeys came with the narration of folklore, Manx stories of fairies and black dogs that could inflect how the island felt. From the Raad ny Foillan (Way of the Gull) coastal path, looking out over the sea, it was easy to speculate on why Melville had put an unnamed Manxman among the crew of the Pequod.

Girls playing in the street, Wallsend, Tyneside, 1976 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos.

By the time Killip was seven, his family had moved from the Highlander to the coastal town of Peel, where they took on the White House pub. He would quickly settle in at Peel Clothworkers’ School. Miss Walker, his new teacher, established the Friday afternoon book session that would consolidate a lifetime’s engagement with the written word. He would soon be drawn to make the short walk to the sailors’ shelter, to listen to stories as much about surviving on land as they were about leaving, in time with the seasons, to fish in the deep waters of Canada and the Americas. In a recording made in 1997, Killip remembered ‘a buoyant place, full of characters and accepting of behaviour’ and, naturally enough, some of his earliest memories were drawn from the bar culture he lived amid. Mr Twysell, who sat drinking on wet afternoons, shared Manx tales, while on Saturday nights at the end of the working week, the thirteen-year-old Killip would watch from a corner stool as locals revealed another side of themselves. Eddie Kneen, the baker and bookmaker, Ernie Quirk, the grocer and taxi driver, and so many others would perform for each other, exuberant and slightly drunk, proclaiming their love and belonging through the pub songs they sang. Killip likened Peel’s locals to characters from Under Milk Wood or The Last Picture Show, and, in later years, recognized that they shared something of the peasant dignity held by those who populated John McGahern’s short stories. With occasional foreign fishing fleets making the most of the hours on shore, Peel could be a lively, sometimes unruly place, with its own rhythms and few secrets, although among the Govags, as locals were known, the police were kept hopelessly out of step and knew little of the ways things really ticked in the town.

Killip would retain these memories longer than any from Douglas High School for Boys, which he left, with few qualifications and by mutual consent, at the age of sixteen. Options seemed limited, until his father’s standing on the island brought forward a position as a trainee in hotel management at the Castle Mona Hotel in Douglas. There, taking on various roles including time in the hotel’s kitchens, he learned about hospitality and the basics of cookery from an abbreviated Escoffier manual and, with it, the navigation of chefs, who threw poorly made dressings back at him in anger. The hotel work was offset by a keen interest in cycle racing. Killip and his friends pursued their obsession wholeheartedly, searching out updates on the great races. Paris Match carried their best reports, and it was while flicking through a copy that Killip came across a photograph that would change the course of his life. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Boy with two bottles of wine, Rue Mouffetard, 1954 left him dumbfounded. What gave the photograph its power? It was made seemingly for its own sake, not in the service of something, not an advertisement, simply a photograph of energy and youth, made in the street. Throughout his life, Killip would return to it frequently, describing it, questioning it, enjoying it. It was part of a practised monologue for the introductory classes he later taught in America, in which he recounted a moment when, fourteen years after first seeing the photograph, Killip found himself in Newcastle with its photographer. He had commissioned Cartier-Bresson’s partner, Martine Franck, to photograph the elusive aristocracy of North East England and, using the opportunity for a holiday, Cartier-Bresson sketched the nearby shipyards from the window of Killip’s home. During the stay a party was thrown for Cartier-Bresson’s seventieth birthday, at which he recalled a moment when, at an early age, a fortune-teller had predicted everything that would happen in his life correctly, except for one thing: he would die young. Killip was fond of the story and its message. After growing close to Cartier-Bresson, he would come to suggest that those who knew him might believe the fortune-teller had been right all along.

Gordon in the water, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, 1983 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos.

The effect of first seeing the photograph was immediate. Killip told his father he could no longer continue along the path he’d taken. Without owning a camera or ever having taken a photograph, Killip applied for and took a job with the Keigs Photography company. Keigs were known for their ‘walkies’, photographs of holidaymakers that were quickly processed and displayed in their window for passing subjects to buy when they saw their likeness. Working in Port Erin, Killip became adept at spotting new families who looked worthy of pursuit and, by summer’s end, had saved £620, enough to leave the island in search of work. The evening after Killip’s job with Keigs had officially ended, he was asked to return to cover for an absent staff member. A collision with a van in bad weather at Santon threw him from his motorcycle, leading to a spell in hospital and, after three days lying unconscious, a wired-up jaw. The stylish Italian helmet he’d bought despite his mother’s alarm at the price, saved his life.

Without the qualifications to allow college entry, a move towards the photographic industry in London was a logical, if uncertain step. On arrival in the late summer of 1964, Killip drew up a list of the city’s best photographers. Nervously, he worked from the lowest ranking up through the list until he arrived at 57 Tite Street, SW3, where, recognizing his Manx accent, the receptionist suggested he come back that evening. By the time he did so, the photographer Adrian Flowers had returned and agreed to a fourth assistant. Killip started work immediately. A role organizing a party that first Friday evening, for guests Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre, must have assured him that the move to London was a promising one. Working across advertising briefs and food photography, the studio assistants and the office staff often worked late into the night, cooking for each other and running the business en famille to a soundtrack of Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and the diverse jazz that filled Flowers’s studio day and night.

Youth on a wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1975 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos.

The later 1960s saw Killip moving towards an intermittent but rewarding freelance career assisting London photographers and working for those arriving in the city for short commissions. An early job was revealing in its fluency: the French photographer Jeanloup Sieff arrived with a small bag containing only a camera, lenses and change of clothes, leaving Killip to buy film just ahead of the shoot. His reputation growing, he agreed terms to assist Justin de Villeneuve, who was responsible for the fashion model Twiggy’s corporate image, as they travelled in a Rolls Royce along the King’s Road. Killip would arrange the studio lighting and process for each shoot, leaving de Villeneuve to do little more than press the shutter. Their aim was to have cover shoots for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Queen magazines within six months, a goal they subsequently achieved.

On settling in London, Killip had developed friendships with several artists, including Royal College of Art painting student Geoff Rigden and the painter and musician Ian Dury, who eventually led his band, The Blockheads, to wider acclaim. Never an enrolled student himself, Killip occasionally attended Peter Blake’s critiques and browsed the RCA’s library. He made no visits to the Photography area, preferring to look for nourishment elsewhere, by searching out lectures, visiting shows and walking London with his friends to ‘find good things’. These wider interests allowed for a greater testing of the work they were seeing and making. As a photographer, Killip’s work and opinions could be challenged by those with a wider field of reference, far from the orthodoxy and limited photographic histories that prevailed in London at that time. Few books circulated beyond yearbooks of collected work, and few galleries prioritized the medium before The Photographers’ Gallery opened in Covent Garden in 1971, so inevitably the richness of conversation and support beyond photography evolved into sustained friendships. Rigden and Dury both went on to teach at Canterbury College of Art, with Killip a curious visitor in the early 1970s. Their friend, the painter Mali Morris, recalls how on one visit Rigden and Killip were set to return to London for a night in the pub, but sought brief shelter in Canterbury Cathedral, only to find themselves alone and lost to the divine polyphony of Evensong. Heaven and the pub can sometimes share the same evening. Killip would remain in touch with Rigden as their careers matured, and he later made portraits for Dury’s 1980 LP Laughter, though by that time Killip had left London for the north of England.

Killip’s regular commercial work continued to expand in the late 1960s. In 1969, while already in America, he travelled ahead of his group to arrange a shoot in New York and, with time to spare, visited the Bill Brandt show at the Museum of Modern Art. But it was MoMA’s permanent photography collection, with Paul Strand, Walker Evans, August Sander, and its recent acquisitions that interested him most, and he left the museum with an understanding that photography, rather than being something done for clients, could be done for its own sake. ‘You just do it’, he told himself, with purpose, only to ask another question later, when he’d calmed down… ‘Do what?’

Killip rang his father from New York to tell him he would be returning to the Isle of Man to photograph. Starting there was logical and so, towards the end of 1969, Killip began to work. Returning to London occasionally, he was even happy enough to show some of the early photographs in a group show with Dury, Rigden and others, but, after showing some early prints to Bill Jay, editor of Album magazine, he had a change of heart. Jay had looked at the photographs and found them ‘ok’, but suggested that something needed to change. Killip had been using a 35mm camera slowly, on a tripod; but if he was going to such trouble, should he not be using a plate camera? Killip left the meeting furious and perplexed, but when, on returning to the Isle of Man with a hired MPP camera from London’s Pelling & Cross, he exposed the first sheet of film, Mr Cubbon, Golden Meadow Mill, Castletown, he knew right away that Bill Jay had been right. He rang the hire company that evening and bought the aging camera.

Helen and her Hula-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumbria, 1984 © Chris Killip Photography Trust/Magnum Photos.

An agreement with his father allowed Killip to photograph during the day, process the sheet film in the early evening and then work in the bar until midnight at the Bowling Green pub in Douglas, which by this time the Killip family had moved to. This routine was followed each winter between 1970 and 1972, with cheap land and sea travel enabling his trips to London, to his friend Hiroshi Yoda’s darkroom, for long days spent printing and sleeping on the darkroom floor when he was too tired to work further. When Paul Strand, whose earlier template had been so instructive, rang the pub one evening while Killip was back on the island to say that he was in London briefly and to ask to meet, Killip politely, firmly declined and continued serving customers. Strand had been given the number by The Times Picture Editor Norman Hall, whom Killip had met in 1970 and come to respect for his knowledge and tips about ‘who to look out for’. Hall was among a group in London whose commitment to photography proved influential. In West London, not far from where Killip lived while there, David Hurn’s flat in Porchester Court was a welcoming stopover for photographers passing through the city. Joseph Koudelka, whom Killip grew close to, would stay there for eight years after leaving Prague, and Diane Arbus, Leonard Freed and Bill Jay, who had offered that pivotal early advice, were among other visitors who contributed to Killip’s growing sensibility around photography.

To read on, get your copy of Chris Killip, the definitive, full-career retrospective of one of the UK’s most influential post-war documentary photographers.