Youth on Wall – a Chris Killip Masterpiece

15 years ago, I bought my first photograph by Chris Killip.  The photograph represents a time in history, where a committed, but impressionable 30 year-old Killip witnessed the bottom of an economic cycle in Northern England, when industrial manufacturing was dying, and poverty and despair were the order of the day.  

Killip, Chris – Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976

I relate to the photograph in my own personal way, as I am pretty sure that the young man in the photograph is more or less my age.  It is difficult to say exactly, as Killip has not said anything about his subject, other than naming the photograph: Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976.  In 1976, I was 15 years old, much the same, I think as the young man in this photograph.  My father always said that I should always remember that we do not pick where we are born.  The Youth on the Wall grew up at a time when things were tough, factories shutting, unions being busted, and the industrial heartland of the United Kingdom gutted. 

The young man is wearing a warn jacket – half a suit, I think, that has seen much better days – with pockets appear to have held clenched fists for a very long time, and perhaps a rolled up tweed cap.  We can see a couple of stripes at the bottom of a sweater, which to me looks like part of a former school uniform.  We cannot see what he wears under the sweater, but I would guess a not-so-white undershirt.  His trousers are black and suggest that they have been worn a lot.  Long wool socks connect the trousers that look shorter than they probably should have been at the time, with the massive worn boots, that seem impossibly big, or at least several sizes larger than what this otherwise gaunt young man should need.  But what really grabs me, aside from the great photographic composition, are the clenched fists pressed against the young man’s forehead, and the lines emanating from his closed eyes, and across his forehead below the very short hair, no doubt cut quickly with a machine.  It is as though the youth wants to will himself to disappear.  To vanish from the trials and tribulations that form his seemingly endless reality. 

The composition of the photograph reminds me of Ruth Bernhard’s nudes in boxes.  It is as though the young man is making himself as small as possible to fit in a tiny space identical to the photographer’s frame.  His clothes remind me of the grafters that would show up every day looking for backbreaking work in the docks of Liverpool, or Belfast.  Men hoping to be picked by the crew bosses for a day’s work loading, or unloading ships by hand.  Colin Jones’ work comes to mind.  I can imagine that the youth has a rolled up cap in his pocket and could easily fit in among the thousands of day-labourers hoping to stave off the greedy landlord for another day and buy the basics for a simple meal for himself and his family.  Of course, Killip’s youth is much too thin and weak to ever get called upon by the crew bosses. 

Chris Killip passed away on Tuesday.  He was 74.  He is best known for his work in North England in the mid-1970s.  He created a body of work that was collected in one of the most important photography books of the period: In Flagrante.  Killip lived among his subjects, shared their loss and their despair and understood the context of his photographs – if not yet the importance – such that he was able to vanish into the background and show the raw reality of what was happening at a time in history that was cruel, hard, and for many an endless fight to simply survive.

I look at this photograph every day when I walk into my living room.  It reminds me that I should take nothing for granted and should be happy to be alive, healthy and eager to take on the day.

Chris Killip (1946 – 2020) Rest in Peace, and thank you for the daily reminder.

Harbel 

Note: First published on The Eye of Photography: https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/in-memoriam-chris-killip-1946-2020-by-soren-harbel-dv/

Photography IS Art

– It is sinking in…. even among non-photographers!

Early this morning, I was walking through the Milano Centrale railway station.  For the most part you could fire a cannon in the place and hit nothing.  For an average Wednesday, it was a little sad.  No, very sad. COVID19 is still very much in play here in Italy and people are playing it safe.  Doing what they now call ‘smartwork’ which is the new term for working from home.

I passed a bookshop that was open early, maybe dreaming of selling a newspaper or two, and much to my surprise it finally happened……  The photography monographs were mixed in with the painting and sculpture monographs.  First, I was irritated, because seriously, who wants to go through reams of books to find the photographers.  But then, it dawned on me.  This is probably the first time I have encountered an art section, and not an art section, a photography section and an architecture section.  I realized that this might just be the wave of the future – finally – where books on Rembrandt sit next to books on Marc Riboud.  Martine Franck next to Helen Frankenthaler.  You get the idea. 

Mario De Biasi – Milano Centrale 1950s

It is perhaps appropriate that I discovered this in Milan and not some other city, because this month kicks off the 15th Milan Photo Festival, which runs from the 7th of September to the 15th of November.  Milan has always had a great crop of artists, chief among them Gianni Berengo Gardin – my personal hero – who turns 90 this year!  Galleries work hard, alongside auction houses to educate and bring great exhibitions to the citizens of Milan and those that come to visit from elsewhere. 

The photograph above is one from my collection, a small vintage print from a platform at Milano Centrale in the 1950s. More people then, than now, but nice to see that Campari was still a great drink then, as it is today! Mario De Biasi was a great photographer, not well known outside Italy, but worth a look!

Sound the trumpets:  Photography is art! 

Hard to believe after just shy of 200 years!!

Harbel

Photo Book Escapism – In a Time of Great Distress

As a lot of us are locked up at home.  The World is holding it’s breath.  Life as we know it is grinding to a halt.  It is time for comfort, but also for escaping for a time to another place, or another time.

I have for many years bought many, many books of photographs.  Books that fill book cases and book cases, and… well, you get the picture.  At a time, when I am sitting here in my favorite chair with a cup of tea with lemon and honey – it is too early to add alcohol – I have pulled a couple of books from the shelf and have spent an hour looking at great images by masters of the medium.

Harbel’s bookcase

Personally, I have been working on two books of my photographs for a long time.  I keep changing the sequence of the images, playing with layouts and wondering about which photograph should go on the cover.  I wonder about titles for the images (those that have read a few of my blogs may know that I am not a big fan of titles), and what kind of an introduction I should have. 

As I wonder about these things, it gives me pleasure thinking of the experience that people will have when leafing through my books.  At least the 5 people that I will give the book to!  I am not expecting best sellers, but I feel that photographs in a book are different than individual photographs in a frame on a wall. Also, books of photographs are a way of leaving a message. A footprint, when I will be nothing but dust.

Books of photographs are in their own right works of art.  And we all know that art is of critical importance to us all.  It enriches our lives and makes for a more bearable existence, particularly in times of crisis.  We all see the horror, or sci-fi movies set in the future, where the set is deliberately made to look anonymous, walls plain with no decoration and wardrobes monochrome in the black/grey/white range.  This is no coincidence.  This is about taking away our humanity and turning us all into just beings in a maze.  Like white mice in a medical lab.

We must keep our humanity and we must do so every day.  A book of photography is about us.  About our lives, our world, our time, and what has come before. 

One of my favorite quotes:

Instagram is like frozen pizza, exhibitions are noisy – but a photo book is an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world. – Teju Cole

Makes me laugh every time. So true!

Stay safe.  Make some tea, or pour yourself a whisky. Get a book of photographs from the bookcase, and if you don’t have any? Get some. Order books of photographs for home delivery!  Escape for a bit. Think of another time, or another place. Transport yourself there. This is what a great book of photographs can do. Innocent escapism! Calm!

Harbel