Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

At age eighteen, Chris Killip saw an image by Henri Cartier-Bresson and decided to become a photographer. Killip, who grew up on the Isle of Man, documents social landscapes and is known for a series of powerful images of struggling industrial communities in North East England. We hear from Killip about his past working as an assistant to advertising photographer Adrian Flowers, his experience rediscovering images from work made decades ago, and his love for black-and-white photographs. Killip is professor of visual and environmental studies at Harvard University.

Chris Killip / John on the Coal, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumerland

John on the Coal, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumerland, 1983, Chris Killip. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © Chris Killip

More to Explore

Chris Killip artist’s website
Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante Getty exhibition
Chris Killip in the Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum


JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

CHRIS KILLIP:  I didn’t want to be an advertising photographer or a fashion photographer. And I actually rang my father from America and said, “Could I come home, live at home, and work in the bar at night? Because I wanted to photograph the Isle of Man.” And he said, “Fine. Sure.”

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with British photographer Chris Killip.

When the steel, ship, and coal mining industries of England went into decline in the 1970s and ‘80s, Chris Killip was there with camera in hand. His intimate photographs of the working class are captured in a volume titled In Flagrante, often considered the most important photography book to document the devastating impact of deindustrialization in northern England.

The intimacy in Killip’s portraits is immediate—his subjects are caught mid-act and mid-emotion, and one can feel the reality of the grit of his scenes at first glance. A boy with rubber boots lying with his head in hand at the base of a mountain of coal, cars and trucks in the faded, stagnant background. A woman hunched over, sitting on a curb, her head bowed dejectedly and her arms draped hopelessly over her legs. A shadow of a figure, presumably Chris, and a camera angle into the scene from below.

He lived with the communities he photographs for months to develop relationships, gain trust, and in his words, to “get under the skin of the place.” And the results speak for themselves.

Chris’s work is the subject of the Getty exhibition, Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante, on view at the Getty Center through August 13, 2017.

I spoke with Killip on the phone from Harvard University, where he is professor of visual and environmental studies, about his early life and work as a photographer.

CUNO:  Chris, it’s great to have you with us this morning. Thanks so much for joining us on this podcast. You were born in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, in 1946, shortly after the Second World War. I read somewhere that there was an internment camp in Douglas, and that it was known as the “artist’s camp” because of the artistic and intellectual life of its internees. You couldn’t possibly have remembered that ’cause you were born after the war, but you might remember stories about the camp or any lingering after effects of the war growing up in Douglas as a child.

KILLIP:  Only most memorably, in the First World War, Kurt Schwitters was interned on the Isle of Man, at a very big internment camp, which was in the countryside. And he wrote at one point, he used to bark himself to sleep like a dog. [they laugh]

CUNO:  So there’s something about the Isle of Man that made it so attractive as a place for internment camps.

KILLIP:  Well, no. Well, what was amazing, in terms of the First World War, there were many great archeologists working in English universities at the time, and they were all interned in the Isle of Man. And they did these great digs, exemplary digs in the Isle of Man, because they had nothing else to do. And they had a lot of unpaid labor who were only too happy to leave the camp and go and help them dig. It’s quite interesting to see sort of the extent of the excavations on the Isle of Man and how brilliant they are. But that’s thanks to internment. [he chuckles]

CUNO:  I see. But was there any kind of lingering social effects of the war on the life in Douglas?

KILLIP:  [over Cuno] No, The internment camps in the Isle of Man, particularly in the Second War, weren’t too strict. They were in boarding houses, and people, you know, weren’t going to escape; it was an island. And I don’t think it was too odious for anybody to be interned in the Isle of Man at that time. Also, rationing on the Isle of Man wasn’t strictly observed, because there plenty of fish and there was lots of farming, lots of food. So nobody suffered unduly on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

CUNO:  Well, tell us more about the social and economic character of the Isle of Man when you were growing up. What was it like to grow up there?

KILLIP:  When I grew up on the Isle of Man, it’s very different than it is now. It was a much poorer place, and very much a seasonal sort of activities, meaning fishing. It was the center of herring fishing. Herring is a migratory fish, and it starts off in the North of Scotland. And the fleet from Ireland, England, and the Isle of Man, follow the herring for the season. And they end up in the middle of the summer on the Isle of Man. And then later they have to go through to the east coast of England for the residue of the herring.

And the Isle of Man in the summer had this strange economy, where there was a surplus of agricultural food. And many, many holiday makers were all channeled to the Isle of Man from the North of England. There’s the industrial North of England, where you had wake weeks where people were brought by train to the boat, and then sent to the Isle of Man on their holidays—their one week or two weeks holidays. And the wake weeks were these towns, like Blackburn, Burnley, and all these towns in the north, were all staggered. So it was a different week. There was a different wake week. And Glasgow was another one. And if you went down to the promenade in the Isle of Man in the summer, which I did as a kid, you could tell when the Glasgow ship workers were in because some people were bent double walking along. And they were the rivet catchers in the shipbuilding yard, and they had these industrial deformities basically.

And you could see lots of people from the Lancaster cotton mills were deaf, and there was a lot of sign language going on. [he chuckles] So you had all this sort of strange observation of the English working class, which being Manx, you’re not part of. I mean, I was working class in a Manx sense but not in the Northern English industrial sense, the industrial working class.

CUNO:  What was it like to be working class in a Manx sense?

KILLIP:  Well, you had no sense of class. [he chuckles] And I mean, I grew up in a fishing village, Peel, on west coast of the Isle of Man. And everybody went to the same things, so there was not a class division. And I was very unaware of class as a child. I was only more aware of class when I left and came to London when I was eighteen. I didn’t have much class sensibility as a child.

My father had a pub, which was the center of the town. And everybody drank [he chuckles] at that public. So I mean, when I was at school, the schoolteachers would tell me if I didn’t pay attention, I’d end up with the trash men. Well, actually, all the trash men drank in my public and I liked them all. I knew them all, and I knew they weren’t stupid. [they laugh] Or if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up on the key with the fishermen. Well, I knew all the fishermen because they drank in my father’s pub. And I knew they weren’t stupid, so I became rather at odds with school and attitudes towards brains and education. [he chuckles]

CUNO:  Did you have a real clear sense of yourself as a Manx? And if so, what did that mean?

KILLIP:  Yes. Well, that was instilled in me by my late father. My father was passionate about the Isle of Man. And so every Sunday, we used to go on these amazing routes with my father to find various obscure archeological sites. And the car got stuck many times and my mother was always breaking by farmers. The farmer had to come out. He had to dig us out of a ditch or pull us out of a river. My father loved [Cuno laughs] all these jaunts on a Sunday. And unwittingly, I grew to know and like and then love the Isle of Man. [Cuno: Yeah] And a lot of it’s due to my father and his absolute enthusiasm for the Isle of Man.

CUNO:  What was your schooling like at the Isle of Man?

KILLIP:  Abysmal. Abysmal. I went to the same school—that was Douglas High School for Boys—as Frank Kermode. And if you—

CUNO:  [he chuckles] Oh, really?

KILLIP:  Yeah. He writes very well about it in his autobiography—a very strange autobiography, which is of a few incidents of his life. But it wasn’t a particularly good school. And I, unknowingly, was dyslexic, so I had rather a tough time of it in school, and I left when I was sixteen, which is the earliest time I could leave.

CUNO:  Yeah. So Frank Kermode was older than you, but did you know his family?

KILLIP:  [over Cuno] Yeah. My mother was friends with his sister, so I knew of him. My cousin, Charlie Quirk, was also the preeminent English linguist at London University. He was Charlie Quirk, who later became Sir Randolph Quirk, who is now Lord Bloomsbury. But to me he was Charlie Quirk. And it’s strange to me that the two doyennes of English language and literature both came from the Isle of Man. And I’ve never been able to sort of like resolve this in my own head except I know that the oral tradition was quite important to them both.

CUNO:  Well, you left school, as you already said, at age sixteen. And you left to become a trainee as a hotel manager. [Killip: Correct] Was there anything that you saw or heard in the hotel that attracted you to the intimate dramas of people’s lives, of a kind that you would document in photography?

KILLIP:  Not really, but I ended up in the kitchens, which were very dramatic and very tense. [he chuckles] And I enjoyed it quite a lot. But my father sort of came to me one day and said he’d been talking to talking to be in the brewery in the Isle of Man, and they told him that if I was going to make a go of it, the best hotel schools were both in Switzerland. And he was prepared to pay for me to go to these schools, which actually made me think really hard. Because although I liked what I was doing, I knew I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life.

And I had seen a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, when I was looking through a copy of Paris Match to get to the cycling pages for the Tour de France. The photograph was Boy With Two Bottles of Wine, Rue Mouffetard [Cuno: Oh, yeah] 1954. And this image stopped me because it really puzzled me. I liked it an awful lot but I also didn’t know why I liked it. I knew it wasn’t a snapshot, for some reason, but I didn’t know why I thought it wasn’t a snapshot.

And so for me, it was just very intriguing. I couldn’t have articulated my feelings about it, but I was mesmerized by it. And I sort of felt up against the wall: my father, with this very kind gesture to send me off to Switzerland—he was going to pay for it. And this was something I didn’t want to do. So I went to my father and told him I was going to be a photographer. And he was quite puzzled. He said, “But you don’t have a camera.” I said, “I know.” He said, “You haven’t taken a photo.” I said, “I know, but that’s what I’m going to do.” [they laugh] And so he nodded and I became a beach photographer on the Isle of Man. Photographing people on the beach, holiday makers. And I saved my money, and then I left for London. I think it was October 1964.

CUNO:  [over Killip] And you were eighteen?

KILLIP:  I was eighteen. And, I suppose, looking back, quite naïve. I arranged to meet a friend who was going out with a sister of my girlfriend at the time. He was from Birmingham. I arranged to meet him under the big clock at Charing Cross Station. I assumed there was a big clock; I didn’t actually know. [they laugh] And—on a Saturday. And he didn’t turn up. And I was so flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to do. I slept in a doorway that night. I put all my luggage into storage and sort of wandered the streets. I was so sort of confused. I didn’t even stay in a hotel room or anywhere. And the next day, I was walking down Oxford Street and I bumped into him. I couldn’t believe it. [they laugh] He was a day late and in the wrong place, and I actually bumped into him. And so we got a place together.

I went to the library and made a list of what I thought were the fifty best photographers in London. And I can remember number one was David Bailey, a famous photographer at that time; and number two was Terence Donovan; number three was Brian Duffy, and so on. Then my nerves failed and I knocked on the door of the fiftieth photographer, because I felt I didn’t know anything. And I hadn’t a job and I knocked on forty-five doors, and no job. And when I knocked on the forty-sixth door, it was 46 Tite Street, the former home of Oscar Wilde. And it was the studio of Adrian Flowers. And the girl who answered the door said, “Where are you from?” I said, “The Isle of Man.” She goes, “I thought so.” She said, “Come in.” And it turned out [Cuno chuckles] her boyfriend from college was from the Isle of Man, and she liked me. And she said, “Come back tonight. I’ll talk to Adrian.” So I went back that night and met Adrian, and he said, “Oh, is this him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he had three assistants, but he hired me—he didn’t need me, but he hired me as the fourth assistant.

I went in on a Monday morning, first day of my work, and my knees started—I just felt so faint. He had these reel-to-reel tapes of all this jazz. And he was playing Art Tatum’s fourteen variations on “Over the Rainbow.” And I felt so completely out of my depth. I can remember feeling panicked that I knew nothing. But I recovered a bit in the morning. And at the end of it, he came to me and said to me, “You know about food. Can you organize some food tonight for a little party? I’ve got two friends who were married in Israel, and they have no photographs, so they’re coming night and I’m going to photograph them.” So I ran off and got the champagne and made canapes and sort of ran around. And then at six o’clock, the door burst open and in came Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim. [Cuno laughs] And they were already drunk on love. It was amazing. And I was running around with the champagne thinking, well, life’s really a quite good. [they laugh]

CUNO:  You’ve lived a charmed life, Mr. Killip.

KILLIP:  Well, I had no idea how lucky I was to end up with this man in the studio.

CUNO:  Tell us about him, Adrian Flowers.

KILLIP:  He’d become a photographer during national service in the RAF, along with Len Deighton and a very famous designer called G. Ray Hawkey—they’re all still friends. And Adrian was a famous food photographer, but he also did all the adverts for Benson Hedges cigarettes. It was a hardcore advertising studio. But he also did editorial for the Observer. And I can remember the food writer for the Observer was a terrible man called Clement Freud. Brother of Lucien, but Lucien was very estranged from Clement. One day, we had to do an omelet. And Adrian didn’t hire a home economist to make the omelet, he hired me. And Lucien Freud was very, very angry that he hadn’t hired a home economist, and it was only his assistant was going to make the omelet. And as luck would have it, I made the most perfect omelet I’ve ever made in my life [Cuno laughs] for the photograph. And Adrian was bending over photographs, and he was looking down, and he kept winking at me [he laughs] and laughing. And Freud was sort of mumbling to himself. But the photograph was very good.

Adrian would actually me ask me after every photograph we made, what did I think of it? And I’d actually, in my terrible arrogance, would criticize it. And I had no idea what he doing for me, which was giving me confidence. He was making me talking about things and building my confidence. He was actually, in fact, as I now know, a very good teacher.

CUNO:  Did you take any photographs for him?

KILLIP:  No—Christmas, he gave me a camera, my first camera. [he laughs] It was a Pentax. And then I photographed myself. I never photographed for him. I was assisting him in the commercial jobs that he was doing, yeah.

CUNO:  Well, in 1969, shortly thereafter, you went to New York. And I read that you saw an exhibition of photography at MoMA, at the Museum of Modern Art. What was that exhibition and why was it so memorable?

KILLIP:  Well, because I’d never seen an exhibition of photography before. There had only been one exhibition in Britain before that, and that was the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, at the V&A. But I had never saw that exhibition. And in New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art. And ironically, the exhibition that was on at that time was Bill Brandt. Bill Brandt, from England.

CUNO:  [over Killip] Oh, gosh. Yeah, yeah.

KILLIP:  But what really changed my life was not that; it was the permanent collection. It was just seeing these amazing photographs from the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, particularly people like Paul Stand and Walker Evans. And just seeing them so intently presented, and realizing at the end of the day, I could do photography for its own sake. I had no idea what I wanted to do in photography, except I didn’t want to be an advertising photographer or a fashion photographer.

And I realized you could just do it. And this was sort of such a great moment. And then later that night, I was scratching my head. Do what? And I actually rang my father from America and said, could I come home, live at home, and work in the bar at night? Because I wanted to photograph the Isle of Man. And he said, “Fine. Sure.” And so he was my unspoken patron.

So I came home, I worked in the bar at night, and went out and photographed. Used his car. He always had gasoline in the car, and he also paid me. And I would come home each day at around six, develop the film, have something to eat, and then work in the bar. I had one very funny moment one night. I was friendly with a man who was my greatest sort of critic in London was man called Norman Hall, who was this sort of—he was, at that time, the picture editor of the Times of London. But he was also the main critic, really, or facilitator of photography in Britain. He was also quite strict. He had sort of an acerbic eye. And he took me a bit under his wing.

One night I was behind the bar and the phone rang. And that was a coin box outside of the bar. And I picked up the phone and this man said, “Well, it’s Norman here, Chris. I’ve got somebody who wants to talk to you.” I said, “Oh, yes, who’s that?” He said, “It’s Paul Strand.” [Cuno laughs] So I said, “Oh, good evening, Mr. Strand. He said, “Norman’s spoken very highly of you. Can you meet me tomorrow in London?” I said, “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t, Mr. Strand.” I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t just fly to London. And he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t turn up the next day to meet him.

And then everybody was shouting for their drinks at the same time, [he chuckles] and I had to—“Mr. Strand, I have to go now. It’s been very nice talking to you. [Cuno laughs] Bye-bye.” It was a very—very funny, but very awkward moment. I would’ve liked to have met Paul Strand. He was staying [Cuno: (he chuckles) Yes, I’m sure] with Norman. But I didn’t. [he chuckles]

CUNO:  Well, two years later, you were back in New York, and a gallerist named Lee Witkin commissioned from you a portfolio of your Isle of Man work. So you had a body of work that you could show him. What kind of work was that?

KILLIP:  That was the first work that I was doing in the Isle of Man. Lee was quite strange. He was the first commercial gallery of photography in New York. And he liked my work. It just coincided [with] when he starting a series of portfolios with a man called Dan Burley who was a collector. And he said, did I want to do a portfolio? And I said, “Yes, I’d love to,” on the Isle of Man. I was going to go back and work, and he and I together would select the images for the portfolio. And we sat down and he told me how much he would pay me, and I agreed; it was great. And then he wrote me a check for half the money.

So I went back to the Isle of Man with half this money. And I think this was something like October. In May, I got a letter from him saying, “I’ve been thinking about you. You must’ve run out of money by now. Here’s the other half.” And he paid the— [Cuno laughs] he paid the whole amount. He didn’t have a photograph. And it enabled me to carry on. And then the following October, which was more than a year later, I went out with more pictures to show him.

And from them, we selected the portfolio. But it seems strange now. Nothing was written down. And I had all the money and he had no pictures, which wouldn’t happen now. [Cuno chuckles] It wouldn’t happen like that now.

CUNO:  Well, when you look back at that work, what does it seem to you now? When I look at it, the Isle of Man work, the early works from the seventies, early seventies, it seems elegiac, as if, you know, you’re capturing a culture or a way of life that was disappearing. Did you have that sense of it when you were taking the pictures?

KILLIP:  Oh, for sure, because in the seventies, the Isle of Man had declared itself a tax haven. Now, tax was low in the Isle of Man because people didn’t have that much money. But the government in the Isle of Man were rather desperate, because the holiday making industry was going into decline because a man called Freddie Laker started off the cheap flights to Spain, and the English working class were not getting funneled into places like the Isle of Man and Blackpool. They were going to the sunshine, for the same price, in Spain. And they knew they’d have to try and do something to revive the economy. And so this promotion of the tax haven became a very big business, and I realized if this took effect it was going to change the Isle of Man quite radically. And so I sort of very consciously went after sort of the Isle of Man that I knew, feeling that it was going to be jeopardized.

CUNO:  And these portraits of the individuals that you have, these are people that you knew intimately?

KILLIP:  No. I didn’t know them. And some of the people are related to me. Some are distant, very distant relations, because I didn’t realize I was related to them. But a lot of them had no idea who I was. And people would ask me this—which I thought at the time, was a very strange question—“Like, who is your grandmother on your father’s side and your grandfather on your mother’s side?”

And I used to reel off who they were, that my father was the son of the miller in Laxey, and my grandmother was a Quirk from Cronk-y-Voddy, a Cronk-y-Voddy Quirk, the same as Randolph Quirk, Lord Bloomsbury. And people would then digest this, and then allow me to photograph them.

I used to think, how do they think they know me, just by knowing that? Now I think they might know quite a lot about me, [he chuckles] by knowing that. But at the time, I used to be quite mystified by the fact that this gave them the confidence to allow me to photograph them. But it allowed them to locate me. And in the Isle of Man, that’s quite interesting. Because I can go into the bar in the village I grew up in, Peel, and stand and look at people, young men standing there, and I know who they were. Meaning, I know which family they belong to, just because of their physical characteristics.

I can recognize them as being [Cuno: Yeah] a Quirk, you know, the Quirks from North View or a Krell or whatever it is, or the Teas. They’re all recognizable types to me. And they would have no idea who the old guy that was standing at the other end of the bar [was].

CUNO:  Well, the photographs are beautiful. Beautiful in their composition, beautiful in capturing the play of light across the surfaces, and the articulation of the different textures of clothings and stone and doorways and things. They’re beautifully printed as well. Did this commission that you got from Lee Witkin, did that it allow you to do a higher level of printing than you’d done before, because you had resources now for the chemicals and the paper and—

KILLIP:  [over Cuno] Yeah, I mean, there was—well, the big difference was, when I first photographed there, I used a 35mm camera. And I came back and I showed them to the main picture editor in London, a man called Bill Jay at the time. And he looked at them, he said, “Well, they’re fine, but I think you’re crazy. You’ve got a 35mm camera on a tripod, which is complete lunacy. Why don’t you use a plate camera?” And I was quite indignant. But that night it worried me that he might be right. So the next day I hired a plate camera, went back to the Isle of Man. And on the first picture that I took, which is actually of the miller from the Golden Meadow Mill, I realized he was right. As I was taking the picture, I thought, oh, my goodness; I’m doomed to carry a plate camera. And it was quite true. [Cuno laughs]

And it was a great help to me, and also slowed me down and made me think more consciously about the photography, in the way I was archiving people. You know, the detail on a four-by-five is considerable. And so it really did affect me. When I’d finished photographing the Isle of Man, I wanted to get away from the tripod and change my photography, and I made a rather great effort do to that. But for the Isle of Man, I stuck with it. When I look at those pictures now, I actually think of the Isle of Man pictures as something like a butterfly collection. Like they seem to be like, pinned down on the page, like butterflies.

CUNO:  Well, over the next four years, you were back in England, and you got a commission from the Arts Council to photograph a couple of cities, Huddersfield and Bury St. Edmunds. And then you got a fellowship and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, where you worked for some ten years. So you’re now back. How did it feel to be divorced from your youthful subject matter and to be engaged in a commissioned project to document an English city?

KILLIP:  [over Cuno] It was great, because I really did—when I’d finished the Isle of Man, I wanted to change my photography very much. And I didn’t know how to do it, but knew I could do it through working. And so when I went to Huddersfield, the first place, I really tried to change and get away from just the static thing of being on the tripod. And then in the northeast, I really moved away from that.

And also, I was very glad to be in Newcastle, ’cause it’s the furthest you can get away from London. I wanted to work unobserved and just work, not be involved with anything to do with London or a career. Meaning that I had enough money from the fellowship not to worry about money, and to spend that money just on my work. And so it was a great sort of energized sort of burst of work. I didn’t think I was every making much progress; but when you, you know, eventually, you look back and you see you have made some progress. But it was just this great opportunity, financial opportunity, just to work unencumbered.

CUNO:  Tell us about your working process, and then tell us about the progress that you made, as you described it.

KILLIP:  Well, my working process was just to be involved. I photographed a pipeline which went from the east coast of Scotland to Bishop Auckland in the northeast of England. And that was going to last the two years. So I had to spend twenty hours a month working for the gas board. And I religiously did this. I made a very good documentation for them of the pipeline being built. But I also got to see the countryside and other areas because of traveling for the gas board. And I had a very good idea of the physical look of the area. And then when I was photographing for myself, I’d pick specific areas and really photograph in them. There was a difficulty sometimes I had when I was photographing, when things weren’t going well, I’d move to another area, move to another area. So I had this discipline. I would name a street that I was going to photograph the next day, and the deal was I couldn’t leave it. I’d get there at eight-thirty in the morning and I was not allowed to leave till six at night. It was to stop me from thinking that the grass was greener somewhere else. So I’d get there and I’d sit in my car, smoke a cigarette, fiddle with the radio. And eventually I’d get out. And it might be raining, I might start to photograph, not know what I was doing, and then I’d find something to do. And by the end of the day, I was sort of in a groove, ’cause I had found something. And I found that just sticking with big things was a big help to me.

CUNO:  But when you went back to your flat or your room, wherever it was you were staying, what did you see? Did you print them out in any kind of way?

KILLIP:  In the Isle of Man, I didn’t have any money. So I used to develop the film at night, look at the negatives, and then go and work in the bar. And then the next day I’d select an image to print, and I’d put that in a box that I was going to take to London in the summer to go and print. And I didn’t look at this work again until I went back into the Isle of Man archive when I was doing my retrospective exhibition. And I was surprised how many images I found that I liked and hadn’t printed at the time. And I had no idea why I didn’t print them at the time.

CUNO:  That’s so interesting to me. Let me ask the question, such a naïve question. I assumed a photographer, therefore you, would take a picture, develop the film, print it, and look at the printed film. But you’re telling me that you could see in the negative itself, qualities that would allow you to identify that as going to be a particularly good image. Did you actually look at the negatives, and was that sufficient?

KILLIP:  Well, I thought it was at the time. But with hindsight now, going back to look at the whole archive, I was right about 85% of the time. But the other 15% that I missed [he chuckles] are very interesting pictures to me now. And I have no idea why I didn’t select them. So it was great to go back to the archive to find these things that I’d overlooked or had put to one side at the time.

My reason for not making prints, I had no darkroom and I had no money. So what I’d do, I’d take these negatives that I’d selected to print, and I’d go to my friend in London, a photographer called Hiroshi Yoda. I’d use his darkroom. I took a sleeping bag. I was conscious I didn’t want to, like, ruin his life or hog his darkroom, so I’d print for twelve or fifteen hours, sixteen hours at a go, fall asleep on the floor with the sleeping bag, get up and start printing again. And as fast as I could within a week to make the prints that I’d come to make. Then I’d go back to the Isle of Man again.

I had limited resources and I just tried to make the most of things. But I’m very glad I did the retrospective and went back to look at the work again. I actually made a set of 250 prints, and they were scanned, for the museum in the Isle of Man. And they now have this archive. They have the prints and they have the digital files. Because I want that work to be in the Isle of Man. So I was very pleased about like, moving this work away from me and locating it back in the Isle of Man in the Manx Museum.

CUNO:  When you were in the Isle of Man, and now when you’re in the north of England, did you have a chance to look at the work of other photographers?

KILLIP:  Yeah, I mean, I was looking at lots of photographers. I mean, I was a subscriber to a magazine, defunct magazine called Camera, of Switzerland. There was a magazine in England called Creative Camera that was very important to me. And also, I was in dialogue with other photographers. Different people stayed with me. I’m big friends with Josef Koudelka. And Koudelka—

CUNO:  [over Killip] And when did you meet him? And how did you meet him?

KILLIP:  I met him in the—about 1971, when he first came to Britain, when he was—I think in 1970 he landed in Britain as a stateless person. And I met him at David Hurn’s apartment, the Magnum photographer. And we became friends. He introduced me to the mother of my son, Marketa Luskacova . And so he’s sort of part of my life. He came up to Newcastle in ’75 when I was working there, and he sort of sat with me and said he thought it would be a good idea if I stayed here for a long time. He said that if you sent six Magnum photographers who were very good photographers to Newcastle for six weeks, he felt inevitably, they would take sort of similar pictures, and only be able to go so far in six weeks. But if I stayed six months or sixteen months or two years or more, something different would happen. I’d get more under the skin of the place, and I would be able to do something that you couldn’t do in six weeks. I would know the place. I would be able to accept certain things about the place, which as an outsider you were unable to accept.

Meaning for me, it’s very interesting to look at Paul Strand’s photographs of Mexico compared to Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s photographs of Mexico, the Mexican photographer, and see how Strand, a card-carrying member of the Communist Parties, which is very ironic, how he beautified poverty and beautified suffering, and simplified Mexico and the Mexican people. And when you look at Manuel Álvarez Bravo, you see the pictures often are quite ambiguous. He’s able to accommodate ambiguity. But sometimes when you come to a place with your own prejudice, initially, you’ve got a fixed view about what you’re going to do and what you’re going to take from the place. And you don’t like ambiguity. It’s not in your fixed image. You know, the baggage that you’ve brought with you. But if you stay in a place for longer, that sort of goes away more and you can embrace the ambiguity of a place. And that’s what Koudelka was hinting at. He didn’t articulate that but I now see it as that.

CUNO:  Yeah. Tell us how that worked for you, ’cause this idea that you got “under the skin” seems so appropriate, when looking at these photographs of the young people. We should also acknowledge that this is marching on to the Thatcher years and the effects of the economy on these big industrial sites and so forth. Talk a bit [Killip: Yeah] about that.

KILLIP:  Well, Newcastle was a part of the great historic industry, because it had coal and because it had iron ore. So what you had is through the coal mines. You had shipbuilding, you had steelworks, and you had these massive industries, which were very dominant in the area. They were massive employers, historically very important. There was a lot of tradition and skill in these industries. And they were—you know, they say you can’t—don’t bring coals to Newcastle. It’s how the place was formed. It’s its reason for being, was all these heavy industries. When I was photographing it, you knew things were going to change; but I had no idea all this was going to happen so dramatically and so quickly.

I was obsessed with the shipyard Swan Hunter. And the management wouldn’t allow me to come in ’cause I wasn’t from anywhere; I wasn’t from any recognized institution. And so they refused me permission to photograph within the yard.

But I could access the yard because you could look over the wall at what they were doing. And they had little jetties down on the river, which I could stand on and photograph the people building the ships. And I obsessively photographed this, thinking this is not going to last forever, but not knowing how true my words were.

When I did a show at Le Bal, in Paris, the director of Le Bal was looking at my work, and it showed a street in Wallsend, which was the shipbuilding capital around Swan Hunter Shipyard. One picture is 1975, and another picture was the demolition of all this area; it was 1977. She said, “Surely, Chris, you’re wrong on that date. That couldn’t have happened so quickly.”

I was in Paris and I was thinking, well, wait a minute. Is she right? I don’t know. And then I thought, well, wait a minute. I moved over to the other side of the river in 1981. Maybe she is right. And she kept telling me that this couldn’t have happened so quickly. I actually, in the show, I changed the date to 1981 for the demolition, thinking I was wrong. And when I came back, I went to looked at my negatives. No, I was right. It was 1977. And it did happen that quickly. And it is shocking to me now, to think that all this happened that quickly.

It’s strange going back to the archive, ’cause I keep returning to it because I’ve become more interested in the shipbuilding pictures that I have. And at the time, I didn’t use many of them, because I didn’t want to be thought of, I think, as an industrial photographer. Or something like that. But anyway, I found these really interesting pictures of the ships being built, which I knowingly documented, thinking this wasn’t going to last in this way. And I’m very pleased. I’ve been making little books myself on Blurb. And assessing those works. But the next pictures, nobody’s seen. I’ve got a whole set of pictures I’ve never released, [he chuckles] which I am now bringing out. It’s quite strange, me in the archive. I found this sent of contacts in a box, which I’d put away. And they’re of a place in 1985, which was the punk venue in the northeast, which was called The Station. It was an old social club on waste ground in the center of Gateshead. And it was run by an interesting group of people called the Gateshead Music Collective, who were these quite together young people who were punks. And they had their own venue. And this was a venue at night and Saturday, but it was also a rehearsal room for all the punk bands. And I photographed there in the summer of 1985, but only took two images from that. That’s the only that have ever been published. I made a book now online and I’m waiting for it to come back, of fifty-four images—I think it’s an interesting book—on this one place.

But so sometimes I had done more than I realized. I mean, I have them in archive, and I have no idea why I haven’t gone back to them till now but I hadn’t. And so I’m now very pleased to find these things. It’s like a new discovery. Every time I look at the pictures, I can remember the making of them in this place.

CUNO:  And the photographs are all black-and-white and—

KILLIP:  All black-and-white. These are all with flash, and they’re all with a five-by-four Linhof. So the detail is quite extraordinary in these pictures. They’re a very strange set of pictures. It was a very lively place. I’d been trying to photograph nighttime music in Newcastle, and I kept coming back to this place ’cause it was the most exhilarating and the most strange of any of them.

CUNO:  But all these pictures, the fact that they’re taken in black-and-white seems to distance them from current reality. It seems to have captured them at a moment in time as if that time is now lost as a result. Because if it were in color, color would have some sort of continuous relationship to the world we see on a daily basis. Were you interested in the black-and-white for that reason? Or for just the quality of the formal qualities of the textures and the lights and the shadow?

KILLIP:  Well, often the reason for me photographing in black-and-white initially was probably to do with economics, that color was prohibitively expensive for someone like me; that it was much more practical to photograph in black-and-white. Then it became this understanding that the black-and-white was so interesting, because of its relationship with history. I mean, that color always, somehow seems to locate the image. Even if it’s from the past, it locates it more in the present.

But black-and-white does this distancing. It’s an abstraction of reality. And in turn, as we’re used to seeing black-and-white, it seems to have this very strong location with history. Black-and-white images inevitably seem to be historical documents. And for me, my real liking for black-and-white was the way it was removed from reality. It was one step removed. It was an abstraction of reality. And that’s what I liked so much about black-and-white.

CUNO:  These pictures that we’ve acquired for the Getty Museum, here at the Getty Center, [Killip: Yeah] fifty prints from the series In Flagrante. I’m interested in that title, because I think it means something like caught in the middle of a criminal offense or—but it’s also used to suggest being caught red-handed, or even caught in the middle of a sexual act. And that seems to be what’s happened in these pictures. These pictures, you’ve caught someone just—a crime has just been committed, or an event is about to be committed. Well, tell us about the title, In Flagrante.

KILLIP:  Well, in flagrante is usually used in legal terms, and most commonly in divorce cases, where somebody’s caught in flagrante delicto, caught in the sexual act. And so it’s like the evidence of that. And I’ve sort of taken the sexual connotation out and just have it as caught in the act. It was very difficult to think of a title, using a Latin title. For me, was quite interesting, because I didn’t want it to be just dismissed as the north. You know? In England, you can dismiss everybody. You can dismiss things when you say, “Oh, it’s from the north.” Meaning, oh, we all know about that. I also thought it would be a little bit intriguing for people, the title. But it didn’t say, this is the north of England. Although every subject in it is from the north of England, I think minus one picture.

CUNO:  Were you ever aware of Benjamin’s sort of description of Atget’s photographs as seemingly to have been taken as a crime had just been committed, or something such as that?

KILLIP:  Yes. And all photographs are, in that sense, are evidence of the crime. [he chuckles] They’re all evidential. But all photographs are also historic in the sense that you can’t bring that moment back. You’re photographing a moment that at the moment you’ve photographed, it’s gone. I can understand why people can have religious objections to photography. You know, that it’s a sacrilege. You know, you’re flying in the face of the maker, by believing you can stop time. Which of course, you can’t.

CUNO:  Yeah. You’ve been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts now for the last twenty years or so. Obviously, therefore, far from the source of your early work, whether it was the Isle of Man or the north of England. How has your work changed living abroad, and living in Cambridge Massachusetts in particular?

KILLIP:  Well, living in Cambridge hasn’t changed my work in that sense. People ask me when I’m in England, how do I like living in America? And I say, “It’s very nice.” I can’t tell what I think is the truth. What I’d like to say is, I don’t live in America; I live in Harvard. I live in the ivory tower, which is not America. I have no knowledge of America, in that sense that I’ve never lived in it. I’ve lived constantly, for twenty-six years, in Cambridge. I can’t say to people ’cause it sounds absurd.

But an American might recognize the truth in that, that Cambridge isn’t America. My wife comes from Omaha, Nebraska, and it’s a very different kettle of fish than Cambridge. And L.A. is a very different place than Cambridge. Even if I lived in the center of Boston, that would be very different; but I don’t. I live four minutes from Harvard.

CUNO:  Are you taking pictures in Cambridge?

KILLIP:  No. I take family pictures but I don’t go out and photograph in Cambridge, no. And what I’ve done traditionally is leave America in the summer and go away and photograph. Particularly when I was more involved with the department as chair and stuff like that, it was great to escape. And that’s how I ended up photographing in Ireland for five, six years. Because it was just my way of getting away in the summer and being somewhere completely different and sort of forgetting about Cambridge and America, and concentrating on something else.

CUNO:  Well, we’re thrilled to have the collection of In Flagrante, the fifty pictures, the prints, in the collection of the Getty Museum, and to have the exhibition coming up. Tell us what your expectations are for the exhibition, how it is that you imagine it being installed. What do you want to make of the space of the Getty Museum for the presentation of your photographs?

KILLIP:  Well, in many ways the exhibition is a dissection of In Flagrante. It’s showing what went into the making of it. So within the exhibition, there are going to be contact sheets; then there will be these little things called work prints, the prints that I made, and other photographs. The ones that are not necessarily in In Flagrante, but are from bodies of work that I was working on, that I then made, like, a great commitment to certain things, like the people who get coal from the sea or the fishing village of Skinningrove. And I extracted a certain amount of pictures from that to put in In Flagrante. There’re no titles in the original In Flagrante. And so it’s quite nice just to contextualize the work in a much broader sense. So that’ll be interesting for me, and for other people, I hope, too, as well.

CUNO:  Yeah. Well, we’re thrilled, Chris, to have the pictures here, as I said. And it’ll be great to see them on the walls of the museum. So thanks for all of that work and making it possible for us to perpetuate them here in the Getty Museum, but also thanks for the time this morning on the podcast. It’s always great talking to you.

KILLIP:  Yeah. You know, I look forward to seeing the show. And very good to talk to you, too, Jim.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

CHRIS KILLIP:  I didn’t want to be an advertising photographer or a fashion photographer. And I...

Music Credits

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »