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Summer 2017

Chris Killip's Portraits

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Tomas Unger

Isle of Man Revisited
by Chris Killip.
Steidl, 2015,
$60.00 cloth.

In Flagrante Two
by Chris Killip.
Steidl, 2016,
$75.00 cloth.

Born on the Isle of Man, Chris Killip took to cycling in his youth, and he remembers tearing through a magazine to find pictures from the latest Tour de France and being stopped by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954. A boy of seven or eight is bearing two bottles of wine down the street, one under each arm, with a sense of occasion the photographer treats tenderly but doesn’t ironize in the slightest, instead meeting so much happy expectancy right where it is, in its unstopped stride. “It didn’t look like a snapshot,” Killip has said of the image, “it wasn’t an advert, it wasn’t in the service of anything but itself, so what did that make it?” This question—“the confusion and excitement” Killip remembers feeling—changed the course of his life. When he came across the photograph at age seventeen, he was working in the Isle of Man’s only five-star hotel as a trainee manager. A few months later, he would turn down an offer from his father, who owned a local pub, to pay for further hotel schooling in Switzer-land. Instead he took up work as a beach photographer, “saying ‘smile please’ to strangers,” saving up money in the hopes of moving to London and finding work as a photographer’s assistant.

You can see something of the Cartier-Bresson photo in the one that graces the cover of Isle of Man Revisited, a revised and expanded version of the collection that emerged from Killip’s return to the Isle of Man in 1970, when he was twenty-four years old. On the face of it, any sense of resemblance would seem unlikely. The subject of the portrait is at the other extreme of age from Cartier-Bresson’s boy, perhaps nearing ninety. Killip works with a plate camera, and patiently; subjects, though not posed, are generally not caught unawares. As he was taking the picture, he says, it crossed his mind that this would likely be the last one ever taken of the man. The wonder is that no such dark thought has entered the frame. What we meet with is not Shakespeare’s “second childishness”—that parody of a human being barely warding off “mere oblivion”—but instead a sort of second boyishness: a glint in the eyes suggesting a spirit utterly intact, an unfussed and improbable fullness of presence. The man leans out and down toward us, his eyes all bright query, his whole stance one of gentle expectancy. Killip had nearly passed him by when the man stopped him to ask if he happened to have the time. Only when developing the picture did he spot a watch-chain peeking out from his subject’s vest.

In the past, Killip has seemed ambivalent about the idea that he might be, at his essence, a portrait photographer. (David Goldblatt, his friend in the art, is one of those who have made this claim.) Perhaps the designation seems precious to an artist whose fierce loyalty to the hardscrabble people he portrays has lent his work, over the years, an unfailingly political charge. But when I met him recently at his Cambridge studio, Killip—now seventy and preparing to retire from Harvard, where he has taught for decades—was hard at work on an expansive, richly reimagined survey of his output meant in part, he says, to engage Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. Its provisional title is simply Portraits.

Killip is perhaps most celebrated for In Flagrante, which followed the original collection on the Isle of Man and was, in its own right, reissued in revised form last year. (In Flagrante Two adds some images and lets all of them speak for themselves, dispensing with an accompanying text.) Here he casts a hard and undeluded and still a transfiguringly humane eye on the coastal towns of northeast England in the run-up to and during the Thatcher years, when rapid de-industrialization made no provision for a great many working people—people whose lives, as Killip wrote in reference to the original collection, were deemed “disposable.” A boy perched atop a wall in Tyneside in a near-fetal position may simply be bristling from the cold, but it is hard not to see him, appearing as he does early on in the collection, as launching a uniting cry of pain, one that resurfaces in more than a few other guises, be it the purgatorial air of the glue-sniffers or the fury of the young concertgoers locked in a scuffle. It may well be this boy’s lot to mature into the man we meet some pages later, standing at a fence the authorities have erected to prevent the scavenging of coal—such scavenging having served as the animating, illicit industry of the place, a vestigial means of sustenance. The man looks utterly stricken, and yet so set apart in that strickenness as to become more than a commentary on this outward episode. Stay with him a while (he is surrounded by others, but his is the only face shown in full) and you begin to feel he is searching out what must finally be an enigmatically private grief: what is finally, in other words, a self.

One of the most searching images in In Flagrante Two is a sort of anti-portrait, a reflection on the inevitability of being formed and malformed by one’s context. On the day the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands died (Thatcher having refused to make any concessions), Killip went out to a Protestant housing estate to shoot. “BOBBY SANDS GREEDY IRISH PIG” is scrawled prominently on a wall at right, and just beside it “SMASH IRA.” In the background at left, your eye catches several charred flats, whose residents have set fire to their own homes in the hopes of being moved somewhere better. Against this charged backdrop, there’s evidence that life proceeds: someone has hung out the washing to dry. This might be picture enough, except that a handful of children are gathered by a low wall in the foreground. By the time Killip sets up his shot, three of them are entirely distracted, wrapped up in play. Yet a pair are still standing in their best formal poses, heartbreaking for their own patient play at adultness, hands clasped before or behind them, looking at Killip head-on. The measure of their innocence, as the photographer Doug DuBois has suggested, is their obliviousness to the fact that the picture is not really of them. Foregrounded though they are, you sense how very small they are before that looming, characterful structure (the graffiti, the fury, the char) and you have to strain to make out their expressions. How long, you can’t help but wonder, till it takes them in?

But to regard Killip as solely a documenter of tragic social transformation is to miss the full scope of his work or, putting it another way, the depth of his humanity. To look at his photographs with at least some portion of the extraordinary patience that has gone into them (he lived on one coal-gathering site for months before the residents would trust him to take photographs; at his first approach, they rushed him on horseback, suspecting he was some sort of government monitor) is to be struck, again and again, by what is too irreducibly human to be read under the sign of history alone. Bleakness is there, of course, but Killip is in no sense a negative artist. When one of Beckett’s men of patience tosses something off about “the kindness of the wayfarers” or asks, “was I sleeping while the others suffered?” these entirely unexpectant proofs of humanity are not snapped up, like that, into the void, whatever their speakers may think; they catch the heart and stay in the mind, all the more forceful for the coruscating way their spareness meets that of the surroundings. It’s that way with Killip’s picture of a father kissing his daughter on New Year’s Day: no, not a political answer, just a lovely gesture, now given its rightly enduring space. So too with the boy Killip shows proudly considering a toad he cups with both hands, in full, unassuming possession of the moment in which we find him.

That boy reappears in one of the most striking photographs in In Flagrante Two, an image that one typically hurried review of Killip’s work glosses over as “a couple of coal-gatherers heading home.” Which isn’t it at all. The coal-gatherers happen to be mother and son, and in this preternaturally calm portrait they are rendered with a grounding intimacy and an unaffected beauty. Does saying so betray a vacuous and politically suspect romanticism? That attitude—or anxiety anyway—seems to dog much of the existing commentary on Killip. One critic calls attention to the child’s coaled-up hands (more evidence of the general blight, the argument goes), sees nothing else to remark, and moves on. But the resonance of the portrait is that, while losing nothing of its immediacy, it sees a kind of ultimate dignity in its subjects by daring to abstract them from the task at which they’re engaged, treating them on a more inward plane of human presence. The title is Rocker and Rosie Going Home and still the overwhelming sense is of stasis (the horse drawing them on is kept pointedly outside the frame). Rosie is hooded, looking downward, inward; Rocker looks out and away. This might stay at the level of allegory if there weren’t the impression of some powerfully unspoken communication, something passing between them, of which Killip’s picture is the living intuition. They have, like any of us, their apartness; at the same time, they seem very much at one.

“I have no interest really in photography,” Killip has said, which means something like what Eliot means when he says, “The poetry does not matter.” These aren’t put-ons, nor do they reach falsely for effect. They speak to something at the heart of the work that goes beyond technical or aesthetic preoccupations, beyond the given form. Killip goes on: “The interest is in what you can show people, what you can reveal. If all the cameras or film became unobtainable tomorrow, I would still find a way to go back to the people that I’m interested in, and I would write, probably try and learn to draw much better than I do now, but I would find a way.”

During our conversation, Killip took down from his studio shelves Eudora Welty’s One Time, One Place, a series of photographs the would-be writer made when, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, she did a stint for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Killip told me the story of the mischance that helped spark Welty’s passage from photography to prose. In a time when any camera would have been a real investment, not so easily gotten, she left hers behind on a train in France. Almost the moment she realized this, Welty accepted it with a strange serenity. It was time to go back to the people she was interested in, it suddenly seemed clear, and see if she could get them in writing.

If Killip has never had to make such a shift, this isn’t simply because he never endured the same chance misfortune. In the preface to One Time, One Place—the text is, like many of the photographs that follow, extraordinarily moving—Welty posits an essential resemblance between writing and photography but seems to come away with a difference. Photography has writing’s same uncanny capacity to reveal human depths, in Welty’s telling:

When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater—who I think must come first in this book—looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to now, just as I did the first time, is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. And though I did not take these pictures to prove anything, I think they most assuredly do show something—which is to make a far better claim for them. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.

These words would do good work if placed before Killip’s photographs, eloquently requesting that we look closely at what’s before us, with a committed respect for the individual person—which doesn’t mean blinding ourselves to the broader social conditions that invariably enter in. On the one hand, Welty sees “the story of her life” in this woman’s face (a story that can’t help but contain, or better yet transmute, history): it’s clear that the photograph reveals much more than a momentary impression. And still Welty closes by suggesting that there is something necessarily more sustained about the imaginative engagement writing arises from and, in turn, gives rise to: “A snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling.”

“A long look, a growing contemplation”: this is exactly what Killip’s photographs seem uniquely to partake of and to sustain. I find myself coming back, again and again, to one of the most extraordinary portraits in the recent Isle of Man book, Mrs. Pitts, Slieu Whuallian, Isle of Man. As we leafed through a working version of the collection he is putting together, Killip spoke of his interest in taking portraits that reveal what we can know of people—“and,” he said after a pause, “what we can’t know.” He doesn’t waste words, and these stood out. Just what is the balance, finally, between what we can and cannot know of somebody? Where does the one give way to the other? Often to look at a Killip portrait is to have a powerfully heightened sense of living out this ambiguity. There is, in his portrait of Mrs. Pitts, this ordinary woman—she’s standing by a wall of her house in a floral dress and dark cardigan, arms folded before her—such a mixture of giving and withholding in her expression and stance, such a poignant interplay between openness and self-possession, between a necessary steeliness and a ready warmth, that it’s possible to feel, all through the long looking, that you know her utterly and not at all. What you don’t question for a second is the extraordinary depth of her presence—something Killip could see, and has given us.

Tomas Unger lives in New York.

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