There weren’t many skinheads at the Photographers’ Gallery the day of his visit, but perhaps our reporter Andrew Stevens wasn’t looking hard enough. There were several, however, in its exhibition afforded to the late Manx photographer Chris Killip – and iconic ones at that. You may already be familiar with some of Killip’s work, even if he’s not a name that falls off the lips like Nick Knight in the world of subcultural portraiture or an academic in the vein of Dick Hebdidge. The West End gallery is bringing together a career-spanning show of his work for the first time.
Killip died in 2020 aged 74, having not long retired after three decades as Harvard Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies. Aged 18, Killip left behind a promising career in hotel management on his native Isle of Man and headed for the ‘Swinging London’ of the Sixties, where he quickly found himself working as a photographer’s assistant to renowned snapper Adrian Flowers of the West End’s Adland, rubbing shoulders with the beat combos and starlets of the day. It’s more than probable he also drank in the same pubs around the gallery, which has been nestled between Carnaby Street and the 100 Club since its 2012 relocation. If Killip had been content to just be a hanger-on in the demi-monde of Swinging London around Carnaby Street, or indeed ended up going full-on Alfie like Flowers’ other hired hand, Terence Donovan, then I wouldn’t even be writing this. Instead, Killip branched out as an independent photographer and commenced his lifelong project to document a particular and peculiar portrait of the North East of England and its people, taking in along the way the birth of punk and rebirth of skinhead.
Among the most renowned of Killip’s works are his intimate portraits of the people of Skinningrove (its Norse name suggesting its enduring purpose as a ‘skinning pit’), a tight-knit North Yorkshire village on the rural edge of Teesside, whose primary economic functions were the hazardous trades of sea fishing and steelmaking (a smallish plant which stubbornly persists to the day, despite the global headwinds on the beleaguered British steel industry). My first job after leaving school was as a van driver’s mate working there and other former mining villages of East Cleveland and it’s an experience that’s stayed with me ever since (Skinningrove was also a particularly memorable episode of Sky TV’s Britain’s Toughest Villages).These days there’s a hipsterfied logo ironworks museum and incomers attracted by its proximity to the staycation hotspots of the North Yorks coast pricing out locals thanks to idiotic property journalists, but the fishermen’s lives Killip documented were cut short by the treacherous North Sea (Killip later presented their families with bespoke collections). ’Simon being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned’ (1983) conveys only too well a pensive withdrawn grieving lad. It was this connection to the community which saw them embrace the outsider and vouch for him if trouble reared its head, something which Killip would later rely on elsewhere in the region.
In the exhibition itself, there’s a gang of punks gathered around the village beck as they probably would have been most evenings, either studded biker jackets, Anti-Nowhere League t-shirts and mohicans or Harrington casual. Another time they’re repairing a fishing boat or perhaps just watching others do it. A lesser-known North East photographer Robin Dale (of Ulla Street Boys fame) told me it wasn’t uncommon to chance on teenage punks in and around the coast during this period, with boredom, glue and DIY attire prevailing. Another picture finds one of the group slouching against the Ford Fiesta of his Perry-wearing casual mate, both ‘gainfully’ employed in the fishing industry touted as the replacement for the steel industry ruptured by Thatcher’s closure programme and the resulting youth unemployment wave which set in across the region as the 1980s pressed on. At the same time, after art critic Sarah Kent claimed Killip’s best-known work ‘Youth on a Wall’, shot in Jarrow in 1976, “personified Thatcher’s Britain” (which ran from the 1979 General Election to her 1990 resignation), Killip went out of his way to point out it was taken under the 1970s Labour government.
In Flagrante, Killp’s 1988 photobook, is regarded as his defining work and takes centre stage in the exhibition, focusing on his stock themes of the North East and the impact of deindustrialisation on small rural settlements such as the fishermen of Skinningrove and seacoal gatherers in Northumberland (though lauded at the time, Killip’s “sentimental” black and white documentarian approach to the working classes quickly went out of fashion and saw him decamp to the US). It is perhaps his work ensconced at Gateshead’s now legendary punk venue The Station for which he’s best known for his subcultural nous and lens. By rights and in any other city, Gateshead would be the Pest to Newcastle’s Buda, but politics often has other ideas and other than for tourism promotion it remains cut off from its better-heeled neighbour across the Tyne. By the 1980s Killip will have found few traces of a Swinging Sixties on the go on Tyneside, the ‘car park scene’ of Get Carter in Gateshead town centre aside (the writer J.B. Priestley famously contrasted the “sombre dignity” of Newcastle with Gateshead being “carefully designed by an enemy of the human race”).
The Station itself was a derelict police social club given an anarcho-punk makeover using black paint paid for by a local council grant, with a roster of mainstay acts such as Hellbastard and Eat Shit and a sign forbidding the use of glue or glass bottles for anything other than their manufactured purpose (not that this deterred either glue-sniffing or violence, by all accounts). A Subhumans gig was too tempting for the local fash to not lay siege to, though one of Killip’s images shows a ‘Bulldog Breed’ tattooed skin side by side with a ‘Coal Not Dole’ badged anarcho-punk, surrounded by other skins. Indeed, any local mention of Station Skins at the time would more likely be associated with the bus station-dwelling Sunderland skinhead gang known by this name (their allied Oi band Zone 57, which included the late Dickie Hammond on guitar, was also named after a quadrant of the region’s bus fare zone map). Gig-goers of Sunderland’s own council-friendly DIY punk venue The Bunker were laid siege to by the Station Skins on several occasions, according to its musicians’ collective organisers more recently, though one of Killip’s standout images of the era is a 4-Skins shirt-wearing skin at an Angelic Upstarts miners’ benefit gig in the town’s Barbary Coast nitespot.
As the grandson of a North East seacoaler and dabbling in the 90s residual iteration of the anarcho-punk scene on Tyneside, it was hard to experience the exhibition as anything other than of close personal interest. Indeed, the collection of Station venue pictures, taken in 1985, might not have seen the light of day were it not for Killip’s son chancing upon a box of images in his father’s studio three decades later and deciding to seek a commercial publisher for these. The less-than-anarchic £45 price tag for the resulting coffee table book, published in 2020 just before his death, could probably buy you an industrial amount of glue and Strongbow, though.
‘Chris Killip, retrospective’ runs to February 19 at The Photographers’ Gallery.
Text: Andrew Stevens.
All pictures by Chris Killip. Top-of-article photo: ‘Youth on a Wall’, 1976.