In 1988 Chris Killip published In Flagrante, a photobook that documents the impact of deindustrialization on working-class communities in northern England in the 1970s and ‘80s. On the occasion of the exhibition Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante (May 23–August 13, 2017) at the Getty Center, we invited Killip’s former student Gregory Halpern to discuss his mentor’s influential photographic work and his work as a teacher. —Ed.
The opening image of Chris Killip’s seminal book In Flagrante (1988) is of a man painting a stormy, romantic sea scene, a depiction at odds with the actual landscape around him—a flat sea and a bleak-looking beach. The next image is a fabulously original picture of a couple—the back of the woman’s head completely obscures the man’s face, while her hand sneaks up his pants pocket towards his crotch. The word “BASTARDS” is graffitied on the wall behind him, somehow at odds with the patriotism of his Union Jack sweater. As I see them, these images stand as poetic moments that speak to the distance between reality and official narratives. A lot more can be said about them, but it is the subject of the third image in the sequence I want to dwell on—a destitute woman sitting on the sidewalk.
The last picture in the book features the same woman, presumably a few minutes later, but fallen over. Here, Killip flipped the negative so that the image is reversed—a parting wink perhaps that the story just told was a “fiction,” as he proposes in his opening statement to the book. What’s more, the shape of Killip’s shadow, which appears in both images, suggests that he was using a right-angle lens (which allows the photographer to surreptitiously photograph something while pointing his camera 90 degrees perpendicular to the subject).
The pair of right-angle lens images—which bookend the plate sequence of In Flagrante—also serve as a reminder that Killip is “taking what’s not mine” as he puts it in the introduction, and an admission that he might do so with a certain trickiness. All photographers have their tricks, but they generally try to hide them. In this case, I like that Killip implicates himself. He is not claiming to be a saint, nor is he speaking from a place of ethical superiority, as is sometimes the case with political or social documentary work.
One might think I am reading too much into Killip’s sequencing, but I don’t believe I am. For photographers, creating a photobook has long been an obsessive pleasure—a chance to deepen and further articulate the meaning of one’s images by playing with the spaces between them. Killip would be the first to admit, I believe, that photobooks, not exhibitions, are the most rewarding and rich way of presenting and viewing a photographer’s work. In Flagrante is universally accepted as a masterpiece, not just for its images, but also for its structure.
The harshness of the book’s last image—a literal and metaphorical collapse—suggests devastation without redemption. Killip rejects the temptation to romanticize, to end the book even with the suggestion of meaning or poetry. Killip started out as more of a romantic. His earlier and lesser-known book, Isle of Man, is a somewhat nostalgic look at the old-fashioned and rather mysterious island where he grew up. But In Flagrante is unforgiving. Whatever romance creeps in to some of the pictures is obliterated shortly thereafter on account of the sequencing. In one instance, a photograph of an older couple charmingly dressed up at the beach sits across the page from an almost abstract detail of debris on the beach. At first glance, the image feels like a type of modernist photograph we have seen before, and seems out of place in the book. We first notice rocks, sand, and shells, but also eventually find broken glass, a chicken bone, and a used condom.
As a sidenote, it is interesting to me that punk music’s legendary early years in England coincided precisely with the years Killip was making In Flagrante. I asked Killip about that once and he was adamant that punk was not an influence. He was 30 years old and already a “fuddy duddy,” as he put it, when the Sex Pistols released their first album. And although he photographed punk shows occasionally, he made a point to wear a suit to the shows, refusing, unsurprisingly, to appear as someone he wasn’t.
I do think, however, the work shares some of punk’s best attributes in its rawness, its working-class antagonism, and its healthy disregard for tradition, both political and aesthetic. Chris dropped out of school in the eighth grade, never went back, and never studied photography. It’s just one marker of his genius that when I met him, he was chair of the art department at Harvard University. (In 1991, when Harvard film professor Alfred Guzzetti called him to ask if he was interested in teaching there, he assumed it was a prank call and hung up the phone.)
But whatever parallels may or may not be made to punk music, Killip’s sensibility is decidedly not punk in his commitment to craft. Killip is a master technician; the fact that he shot most of the pictures on a 4×5–inch large-format camera is evidence alone of that skill. And perhaps it is this particular combination of sensibilities and priorities, this anger and rawness expressed with such elegance of form, that make In Flagrante such a masterpiece. It is a searing work that seethes with rage and yet is made from a place of love, by a man who is both the subject and object of its profound drama.
Killip as a Teacher
Chris was the toughest teacher I’ve ever had; he was unflinchingly honest and compliments came infrequently, if ever. And I suppose the strategy worked, because I wanted to impress him.
When I was graduating, he pulled my father aside and told him I should think twice about pursuing photography because of how hard it would likely be for me. I wanted very much to be a good photographer, but I wasn’t a natural, or even a quick study, and Chris probably sensed that and felt some concern and responsibility for me. It was a helpful and ultimately kind act because it reminded me (and my family) over the years that patience and perseverance would be essential, and that the absence of instant success didn’t equate with failure. His parting advice to me was “keep your overhead low.” At first I thought he was kidding, until I remembered him talking about the trailer he lived in for years at Seacoal Beach. He wanted me to move back home, to Buffalo, New York, where he felt I made my best work, and where I could live affordably.
I remember coming back to visit him at his office after I had published my first book in 2004. I had framed a picture of mine for him as a gift, and although there were no framed pictures on the walls of his office, he rifled through his desk for a nail, and without ever saying a word, took his shoe off, hammered the nail into the wall with the heel of his shoe, and hung the picture. It was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received.