Still lives: Chris Killip's images of Northern working life chronicle and define a bygone era

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Chris Killip and I are looking at the same photographs. But we are seeing different things. They are dense, vivid, solid, black-and-white images of working people in the North of England in the Seventies and Eighties. To me they speak of a grim, bleak, alienated breed – unsmiling, ground-down, resigned or even perhaps crushed and defeated. To him they celebrate the resilience of the human spirit.

We agree on one thing. Chris Killip has – unwittingly at first – become a chronicler of the slow and steady decline of industrial Britain. He is the visual historian of the de-industrial revolution.

That was not how it began. Born in Douglas on the Isle of Man in 1946, he left school at the age of 16 and became a beach photographer before getting a job in London as the third assistant to an advertising photographer. A visit to his first exhibition of photographs, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1969, made him realise that the medium might have a higher purpose than as a service industry.

In the late Sixties, the Isle of Man had taken on the status of a tax haven and young Killip decided to return to record the old ways of the island which he suspected were about to change for ever. He focused on traditional Manx work and culture. His image of an old Marshall threshing machine illustrates his approach exactly; it records every step of the threshing process but has about it a bucolic feel, harking back to Constable and the 18th century.

But it is people who are his chief concern, as images like his portrait of a Manx spinster seamstress shows. The woman made all her own clothes in her two-roomed cottage but though it is 1971, Miss Cubbon dresses herself like an Edwardian lady. There is something quiet and deeply reflective about her, with her opaque lenses and her inscrutable seriousness.

"I don't like smiley pictures," Killip tells me. "A smile is a defence mechanism. It says, 'You can't have the real me but here's my smile'. You get closer to the real person when they stop smiling." That is not all. Killip chooses to work an old plate camera of the kind used in his advertising days. It brings not just a finer resolution but a stillness and a gravity to his work.

Those qualities are there in the next phase of his work during an Arts Council commission to photograph Huddersfield in the Seventies. It was the time that the first wave of immigrants from Pakistan were arriving to work in the Pennine mills but Killip focused on tradition and the past: a man in a battered jacket, contented with his whippets; another brass band man, besuited with his euphonium; a tenement block, deserted save for one lingering resident, the stone, bricks and breezeblocks around him disclosing the passage of time.

Then up to Newcastle upon Tyne, on a two-year fellowship jointly financed by Northern Arts and the local Gas Board. "It was as far away from London as you could get in every way," he recalls, "the strange accent, the coal and iron and steel, and a working people whose fathers and grandfathers had come from Ireland and the same peasant culture that I knew from the Isle of Man." He was fascinated by the way industry sat cheek-by-jowl with everyday life on the street, a juxtaposition summarised by many pictures in which ships-in-construction loomed over the terraced housing. The ship he photographed in 1975, the Tyne Pride, was the biggest ship ever built on the river, and one of the last. "Even then I had a sense that all this was not going to last," he says, "though I had no idea how soon it would all be gone."

His photograph, Youth on Wall, Jarrow, has been described as an icon of the working man's despair at Thatcher's ruination of British manufacturing, though in fact it was taken three years before she came to power. These were days in which the British working class was being confronted, often very brutally, with economic policies which were hostile to their interests.

Killip's latest book contains two photos from the Durham Miners' Gala, the first at the height of the strike and the second as it was collapsing, which depicts an exhausted couple with a child with Down's Syndrome. "They seemed to me to sum up the selflessness which parents of disabled children routinely demonstrate," Killip says. But the picture also speaks of how the divisive social and economic policies of the 1980s disempowered many ordinary people.

Even the seacoal for which men on the dole scavenged on the beach at Lynmouth vanished with the strike. Killip and I look at his pictures of them at work and see different things: the seacoalers look valiant to him; they seem desperate to me.

And at the Cleveland village of Skinningrove – once the centre of a small but thriving iron smelting industry – local youths were reduced to hanging round the beach, watching the few of their peers who had found work fishing from cobles from the beach, mend their boats and nets. Again I see listless boredom, but, counters Killip, "some of them do have work, despite it all". Two demoralised-looking youths stand with nothing to do but wait for spawn-filled salmon to make the run up the shallow beck, and hope they can kick them out of the water in a desperate act of poaching.

This was an era of small pleasures. Fish and chips in a deckchair. An afternoon nap on the sand. But with the Eighties another era was dawning, as the local punks testified. "I was interested in their energy," Killips recalls. "The kids held a series of illegal 'happenings' in venues around Newcastle. No one seemed to organise it and the bands didn't get paid. They were doing it for themselves."

There were other realities. The day in 1981 that the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands finally starved himself to death, Killip went to a North Shields housing estate. "It was the only place where I had seen some Bobby Sands graffiti," he remembers. 'BOBBY SANDS, GREEDY IRISH PIG' it read. "Shipbuilding was dominated by Protestants and the Orange Order in Newcastle, as it was in Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool. Several of the flats in the block had been burnt out by tenants desperate to get the council to move them somewhere else. But, for others, life went on, as the line of washing shows, and the kids, out to play, who came and stood in the foreground of the picture." Again he sees resilience, where I see desolation.

There is a section of the exhibition which is more upbeat. Shots taken inside the UK Pirelli tyre factory show the grace and even nobility of highly-skilled manual workers taking a concentrated pride in what they do. But they are the exception, and in any case their jobs have long gone to Russia, Mexico and Indonesia.

As a backdrop to these last days of making things, Killip has snapped a woman at a bus stop in Middlesbrough, head bowed by the weight of life. There's a street party for Charles and Diana's wedding, but late on; his image shows the remains of the day, the used paper plates and curling sandwiches. There are children drawing in the dirt or staring blankly towards a Destination Nowhere horizon. Killip sees the unquenchable spirit of life; I see people trudging on.

There is one shot which was deemed too nihilistic to be published at the time. It is taken from the same place as the shot of the Tyne Pride. Just six years on the shipyard has done, and so have the children; the houses are half demolished and on the bricks that are still standing, someone has daubed: 'Don't vote. Prepare for Revolution'.

Chris Killip calls it celebration. In truth it is elegy.

'Arbeit/Work' by Chris Killip, priced £38, is published by Steidl,