The legendary British social documentary photographer on living in the ‘ivory tower’ of Harvard University, his seminal photobook In Flagrante, how he narrowly avoided a career in hotel management, how persistence and a chance encounter in a pub opened the door to his Seacoal project and nailing the best omelette he ever made just when it really counted. EPISODE SPONSORED BY THE MARTIN PARR FOUNDATION AND THE CHARCOAL BOOK CLUB.
Born in Douglas, Isle of Man in 1946, Chris Killip left school at sixteen and joined the isle’s only four star hotel as a trainee manager. In June 1964 he realised that a future in hotel management was not on the cards and instead decided to pursue photography full time. He duly became a beach photographer in order to earn enough money to leave the Isle of Man.
In October 1964 Chris was hired as the third assistant to the leading London advertising photographer Adrian Flowers. He then worked as a freelance assistant for various photographers in London from 1966-69. In 1969, after seeing his very first exhibition of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he had an epiphany: photography was something that could be pursued for its own sake. Chris decided to return to the Isle of Man to make his own work where he made ends meet by working in his father's pub at night, returning to London on occasion to print his work.
On a return visit to the USA in 1971, Lee Witkin, the New York gallery owner, commissioned a limited edition portfolio of the Isle of Man work, paying for it in advance so that Chris could continue to photograph. In 1972 he received a commission from The Arts Council of Great Britain to photograph Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds for the exhibition Two Views - Two Cities. In 1975, he moved to live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a two year fellowship as the Northern Arts Photography Fellow. He was a founding member, exhibition curator and advisor of Side Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as its director, from 1977-9.
He continued to live in Newcastle and photographed throughout the North East of England, and from 1980-85 made occasional cover portraits for The London Review of Books. In 1989 he was commissioned by Pirelli UK to photograph the workforce at their tyre factory in Burton-on-Trent. In 1989 he received the Henri Cartier Bresson Award and in 1991 was invited to be a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University. In 1994 he was made a tenured professor and was department chair from 1994-98. He retired from Harvard in December 2017 and continues to live in the USA.
His work is featured in the permanent collections of numerous major institutions worldwide and his seminal photobook In Flagrante is included in volume II of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s influential three part series The Photobook: A History.
In episode 094, Chris discusses, among other things:
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“What you’re trying not to do is over-simplify. Your trying to have some sort of cool in there somehow, so that people looking at your pictures are not constrained by you. Meaning you haven’t predetermined everything, that you can embrace ambiguity.”