Chris Killip was born in Douglas, Isle of Man, in 1946. He left school at the age of sixteen and went to work for a hotel on the island as a trainee manager. A cycling enthusiast, Killip was searching a copy of Paris Match for photographs of the Tour de France when he saw a photograph of a small boy carrying two bottles of wine, taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Killip was mesmerised by the image and by what separated it from other photographs in the magazine. Deciding to pursue photography, in June 1964 he took up beach photography before going to London to work as an assistant for the advertising photographer, Adrian Flowers.
In 1969 Killip stopped commercial work to focus on his documentary projects. In the same year, his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and he returned to the Isle of Man to photograph the disappearing way of life on the island. His images of the community were published in his first book, Isle of Man, with an essay by John Berger. Whilst photographing the island, Killip also worked in his father’s pub, and would return to London occasionally to print his images. In 1972 Killip received a grant from the Arts Council to photograph Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds for the exhibition, Two Views Two Cities. This began a body of work that would focus on communities in the north of England.
Killip moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975 and became a founding member of the Side Gallery, which would become influential in the repositioning of photography as a fine art. Killip photographed the struggling communities of the North East that were regarded to encapsulate the despair of the years of Thatcher government, focusing on the effects of the government’s policy for dismantling industry. The poet, Don Paterson, has said, ‘Killip’s depiction of the effects of this policy on the coastal towns of the north-east was a metonym for a wholesale dismantling and dereliction’. The post-apocalyptic landscapes, strewn with detritus and populated by disenfranchised workers, stem from a period of widespread political malaise in the North of England.
Killip published the images from this period in 1988 as In Flagrante. The publication ensured Killip’s place at the forefront of a generation of photographers interested in depicting socio-political inequalities. In Flagrante includes photographs of a community in Lynemouth who made livings by collecting coal from the sea. Killip first went to photograph Seacoal Beach in Lynemouth, Northumberland, in 1976 but it took him six years to gain the trust of the people working there. He lived intermittently in a caravan in the Seacoal camp from 1982 to 1984. The antiquated methods used to collect the coal along the beach, using horses and carts, led Killip to say ‘the place confounded time; here the Middle Ages and the twentieth century intertwined’. In Flagrante is often called the most important photobook to be made in England in the 1980s.
In 1989 Killip received the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and 1991 he was invited to be a visiting lecturer at the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University. He was made a tenured professor in 1994 and continues to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaching at Harvard.
Killip’s photographs are held by many institutional collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; George Eastman House, Rochester; the Museum Folkwang, Essen; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.