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.