Chris Killip: The Last Ships. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

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The Last Ships is an exhibition of photographs made by Chris Killip in the mid to late 1970s of the shipbuilding that at the time was the everyday backdrop of life of towns beside the Tyne, a life that would suddenly and quickly come to an end. From the exhibition text, Killip describes how although he had a sense that shipbuilding was not going to last, he had no idea how soon it would be gone. The images are both document, testament, evidence and elegy of the industrial heritage of Newcastle, looking at the pictures I see both the recognisable and the alien as I cannot remember ships being built here.

The dramatic decline of the industry is encapsulated by four images of Camp road in Wallsend. In just a few short years the street is shown declining from a typical terraced street to being demolished. In the early images the street is in the shadow of the enormous ships being built directly beside it – when they go so does the street. The sequence gains in power and significance when viewed together, is drawn to the similarities and differences. They show how Killip revisited and rephotographed the same areas and an added depth is achieved because the first and last images are already from Killip’s famous 1988 photobook ‘In Flagrante’. The graffiti in the first image, ‘don’t vote prepare for revolution’ acts as an eerie, dark prophecy, becoming a brutal truth when shown in the final image of the street partly demolished. Killip notes that the initials CPB (M-L) are an abbreviation for Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and probably dates from 1974 when there were two general elections. This, combined with the 1973-5 recession which particularly affected industrial areas resulted in a considerable anger towards both Conservative and Labour parties. Killip’s work is often associated with Thatcherism, but, work from this period was taken under both Conservative and Labour governments and before Thatcher came to power in 1979.

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Looking East from Camp Road, Wallsend, 1975
Chris Killip-Terraced housing in the snow, Wallsend, 1975
Terraced housing in the snow, Wallsend, 1975
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Boy looking into Swan Hunter shipyard, Wallsend, c. 1976
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Camp Road in the snow, Wallsend, 1977
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Demolished housing, Wallsend, August 1977

To accompany the exhibition Killip has produced a newsprint publication of the images. This is a fantastically democratic and affordable way of showing the pictures that is the antithesis of the expensive coffee table photobook and at £3 makes it accessible to all.

I loved this exhibition on so many levels – the photographs are beautiful objects in themselves but also show a world recognisable and yet disappeared. I am not sure if I have ever walked any of the streets shown in these photographs but I feel like I have and they have a strong charge of recognition for me. The work is also inspiring because it shows the level of dedication Killip showed to the subject matter and I hope other projects will be shown in the future that were edited down into his more well known work. The scope and sequencing of ‘In Flagrante’ make it a powerful and important photobook in its own right, an elusive and multi faceted artwork which rewards consideration. This series is a different proposition given the tighter timeframe and subject matter. The power that photographs can gain when shown together and sequenced in a certain way is telling.

I have been trying to find a way of articulating how I feel about this work and the relationship it has between art, photography and historical document. An essay by David Campany sums up exactly how I feel:

“This is a good moment to look at the work of Chris Killip. The period and places he photographed intensively belong to that most precarious of states, the recent past. They are neither fresh in the mind nor solidified into convenient history. His images can still be measured against the living memory and experience, still fought for and fought over as documents, as artworks. For those who were not there – those too young and those to come in twenty, thirty, fifty years’ time – this work will be just as compelling, if on different terms.”

Bibliography:

Campany. D. (2011) The time of Chris Killip. In: Killip, C. (2012) Arbeit/Work. Göttingen: Steidl.

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