“We wanted to value and document working-class culture”: the photography of Chris Killip and Graham Smith | Photography

In 1985, the Serpentine Gallery in London hosted an exhibition by Chris Killip and Graham Smith entitled Another Country. It comprised around 120 hugely evocative large format black and white images taken in the North East of England in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the two British photographers during a period of rapid industrial decline. At their insistence, the prints were exhibited without identifying captions so viewers could not be sure who took what.

“Looking back, it was a bold and powerful statement by Britain’s two great post-war documentary photographers.” says Martin Parr, who befriended them when he lived and worked in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, in the 1970s. This week, a distilled version of the exhibit, titled 20/20, opens at the Augusta Edwards Gallery in London. It includes 20 prints from each photographer and, again, they will all be displayed without an identifying caption. Killip’s most familiar photographs were taken on Tyneside, often in the shadow of impending shipyards, while Smith’s were taken in his hometown of Middlesbrough, often in pubs he frequented.

Thirty-seven years later, the images are a historical record of a time and place, but, as gallerist Augusta Edwards points out, they also possess a haunting contemporary resonance. “The work has so much relevance now given that so many communities feel let down by their government,” she says. “There’s also a tenderness and hope in the work that speaks to the hardships ordinary people face without making a choice.”

Graham Smith, ‘Everett F. Wells’ Swan Hunters shipyard, Tyneside, 1977. Photography: Graham Smith

However, much has changed in the meantime, both in terms of the physical and social landscape the couple captured for posterity and the fortunes of the two photographers. Killip, who died of lung cancer in October 2020, is now generally recognized as a master of British documentary photography. His 1988 book In Flagrante remains a classic of the genre, and although he almost retired to academia in 1991, becoming a professor at Harvard, his photographs have been exhibited around the world. A cleverly curated and long-awaited retrospective of his work has just opened at the Photographers Gallery in London, cementing his already lofty status as perhaps the most acute chronicler of the human cost of what he later called “deindustrialisation “from the northeast.

Smith’s work is much less known. His candid portraits of regulars in Middlesbrough pubs like the Commercial and Zetland often capture intimate tableaux: people, energized or dazed by alcohol, laughing, talking or lost in thought. The exterior shots of collieries and traditional inhabitants look even more like another land – the not-too-recent past as distant as a fading memory.

Graham Smith, Bennetts Corner (Giro Corner), South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1982
Graham Smith, Bennetts Corner (Giro Corner), South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1982 Photography: Graham Smith

Unlike Killip, Smith is a much more elusive figure, his work revered by those who have heard of him, but almost unknown to the general public. This is largely due to his dramatic decision to retire from the photography scene in 1991, and his subsequent refusal to show his work in galleries or publish it in book form.

As he makes clear in the foreword to the catalog of 20/20, his voluntary disappearance from public view was precipitated by a hurtful encounter with the most vindictive aspects of the British tabloid press. In 1991, his photographs were shown alongside those of Killip in an exhibition at MoMA in New York under the provocative and misleading title, British Photography from the Thatcher Years. In his foreword to the 20/20 catalogue, he writes that “it fueled a backlash from some conservative newspapers in Britain”.

Even more hurtful was a slanderous report that appeared in a popular northeast newspaper under the title Boozers and Losers, misrepresenting the work as voyeuristic and condescending. An accompanying editorial described the photographers as ‘a couple of smart alecs from Middlesbrough and Newcastle’ – Killip was actually from the Isle of Man – and culminated with the suggestion: ‘Someone should hang THEM on the walls’ .

In his essay, Smith recalls that after the article was published, “I received a threat of violence from two distant drinking friends prominently displayed in my photographs. Their message, sent by word of mouth, was also on behalf of others who were furious at what they had read in the newspapers.

Chris Killip, Helen and her hoop, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1984.
Chris Killip, Helen and her hoop, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1984. Photography: © Chris Killip. All rights reserved.

Unlike Killip, Smith belonged to the community he photographed. The people who were “defiled” in the article, he wrote, “were mostly people from the community near South Bank, the home town and place of work of my father and his father”.

Apart from a trade show in Santa Monica, California in 2018 called Three from Britain, in which his work was exhibited alongside Killip’s and Parr’s, Smith has so far not allowed his photos to be exhibited in a gallery. His isolation in rural Northumberland seems to have led to a kind of creative reinvention as a writer, with Edwards and Parr attesting to his ability to recall the people and places he photographed decades ago.

“It’s fair to say that Graham lived a wild life while filming,” Parr says. “He had a hard time, drinking, sleeping. But I consider him one of the great figures in photography. He looks a bit like Josef Koudelka in that sense. Until you sit with him and hear the stories, you don’t understand. And, of course, his legend only grew in his absence.

Does 20/20 suggest an attempt to re-emerge from his long voluntary exile from the photographic scene? “I wouldn’t go that far,” laughs Parr. Edwards, who originally approached Killip with the idea for the joint show in 2019, thinks not. “Chris was able to persuade Graham after a while,” she says, “but it took so long to get to that point. It’s a huge thing for Graham that he allowed this to happen but, according to all likelihood, I suspect this might be the only show he does for the foreseeable future.

Chris Killip, At an Angelic Upstarts gig, Sunderland, Wearside, 1984.
Chris Killip, At an Angelic Upstarts gig, Sunderland, Wearside, 1984. Photography: © Chris Killip. All rights reserved.

This possibility, along with Killip’s death, can only make the exhibit feel almost parting. It’s also, like the original iteration, a celebration of their friendship, mutual respect, and how their different approaches to documentary interact on the gallery walls like a lively visual conversation. In his catalog essay, however, Smith recalls how he initially refused Killip the use of his newly built darkroom when the latter first arrived in Newcastle upon Tyne and introduced himself to the pioneer collective Amber to whom Smith belonged. “They were chalk and cheese, by temperament,” Parr says, “and there was always some tension between them, but ultimately they knew what they believed in.”

This too resonates in the work, in the two different approaches to the same end: the recording of ordinary popular lives at the mercy of economic and ideological forces that devalue them. Smith describes the Amber Collective as “a group of idealists guided by a philosophy of creating dialogue with working-class communities, valuing and documenting their culture, living cheaply, and controlling our own labor.” This idealism also seems to belong to another time, to another country, but it underlies two corpuses that have grown in importance over time. Killip could have spoken for both of them when he said of his subjects, “By recording their lives, I value their lives.”

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