An exclusive chat with photographer Chris Killip and his son – who uncovered a lost archive of an 80s punk venue
In 2016, Matthew Killip discovered a box of contact sheets at his father’s studio documenting 80s punk venue, The Station. Here, the father and son chat about this serendipitous recovery.
Not many can say they’ve uncovered a lost photography archive from 30 years ago – especially if it’s the archive of Chris Killip, a Manx photographer known for his black and white documentation of working-class communities in northern England. Chris’ iconic images are gritty, and his renowned works include In Flagrante, a poignant documentation of the damage Margaret Thatcher’s policies had on families in the UK between 1973 and 1985 and beyond.
Well, that was exactly what happened to his son, Matthew Killip, a filmmaker and editor who, in 2016, discovered a box filled with his father’s contact sheets; their images documenting the Anarcho-Punk movement of the 80s. In this box, he found a collection of flash-lit, black and white pictures taken in Gateshead at a music venue called The Station. These images are now the focus of a new hardback publication of the same name, published by Steidl.
Before hearing more about this recovery, I take a comfortable seat at my work-from-home desk. It’s a radiant afternoon and the sun is beaming through the window; the calm before the storm, so to speak, just days before the lockdown was to take place in the UK. Skype launches and I see two akin faces smiling at me from across the pond in Boston and New York. During such precarious times, technology really does work in our favour.
“Shall I talk about this then, dad?” asks Matthew of the moment when he discovered the archive, while Chris responds in delightful agreement. “All right, then,” he continues, “so my dad was a professor at Harvard – he retired two years ago, and he had a studio filled with an incredible collection of photo books and his own archive. For me, it was an amazing place to come and route around.” As would any curious son, Matthew often found himself nose-deep in his father’s books. It was during one of these visits that he discovered the contact sheets from The Station.
“I was in the studio and it all went quiet,” recalls Chris, “and I wondered what he was doing. Then, he came up with this box and said, ‘dad, what are these?’” It had been around three decades since Chris had last seen the contacts, long enough to have completely forgotten about them. Matthew demanded that he take a second look, and Chris trusted that his filmmaker son would have good judgement. “When he’d gone back to New York, I started to go through the box and I marked up the contacts – it must have been about 180 potential pictures, and I printed them all as small prints. I thought they were pretty good, and it’s amazing that I didn’t realise it before. But still, better late than never.”
A fresh perspective can do wonders for any given project. In this case, Chris was ecstatic about his findings and proceeded to make the book on Blurb – an online platform that creates photo, trade, magazines and ebooks. But of course, this wasn’t going to do the collection justice, and after realising how much he “hated it” and how “boring” the outcome was, Chris thought, “I’m in real trouble here”. In dire need of design assistance, he turned to London-based graphic design studio Pony, having appreciated its work on Eamonn Doyle’s I.
Three weeks after sending over the files, Chris returned back to America and the studio sent over its mock-up: “It actually blew me away, I was absolutely flabbergasted,” he adds. “They were so on the money about the energy of the place.” After a couple of minor tweaks to achieve the finished result, the book was sent to publisher Gerhard Steidel. “So, this book is really a four-part thing; there’s Matthew who found the contacts and originated the whole idea, then there’s Pony who designed it, and then there’s Gerhard who printed it. I’m coming in last as the person who took the pictures and didn’t realise what he’s got,” Chris adds.
Within The Station, Chris depicts the difficulties those in northeast England faced during the 1980s. It was peak Thatcherism, and Tyneside – that being Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, Tynemouth, Wallsend, South Shields and Jarrow – was hit hard by the region’s decline of industry. Shipbuilding, engineering and coal-mining jobs were diminishing and this caused long-term unemployment, whereby poverty, deprivation and crime prevailed. For a small group of youths in Gateshead, however, they found unity in The Station – a former police social club that had been transformed into a live venue and rehearsal space run by a local punk collective.
“At the time, I was trying to photograph nightlife in Newcastle,” Chris explains of his reasons for venturing to Gateshead. “I was going to clubs and a lot of illegal venues that weren’t licensed because they were empty warehouses – they were great places. I photographed goths and the Jesus and Mary Chain crowd, but people like that were in and out of Newcastle. It wasn’t very interesting because it seemed predictable.” After hearing of The Station from a friend, Chris was instantly hooked on its energy and the lure of some different faces. “Nobody was empowered over anybody else, and it was a marvellous cooperative structure – it was such a different sort of venue.”
You’d think that a 39-year-old man, sporting white hair and always wearing a suit, would be questioned upon arrival at a place like this. Yet this wasn’t the reality. With slides in his many zipped pockets and an “enormous” camera in tow, Chris refers to himself as a character from a 1950s B movie: “It’s strange that nobody asked where I was from – nobody questioned me once.” Instead, Chris would turn up and say hi (not too much else was said to his subjects), before photographing his surroundings on 15 occasions between the months of March and October. Challenging, to say the least, each and every wall was painted black and the only light was on the stage, making it difficult to see and focus – he also notes how everybody there had little money, so they usually had one “perfected” punk outfit and this caused duplication in his imagery. “There were a lot of misses, and a lot of mistakes where it didn’t quite work out. But when it did, it was really good because of the size of the negatives.”
Years have now passed since his visits to The Station and, here we are, observing an important moment in time that sees self-identity and resilience brought into the fore by Chris’ subjects in Gateshead. “1985 was a tough time – it was just after the miners’ strike and employment was difficult," Chris says. “These guys were unemployed, and there was no chance of them getting a job. Most of them left school without qualifications, they had a few GCSEs at most. So, this was where their energy went. It had real significance.”
The conversation now steers towards Matthew’s interpretation of the imagery; as somewhat of an outsider looking in on this particular movement, he believes that they behold just as much relevance now as they did in the 80s. When asked what image resonates with him the most, he holds up a spread from The Station to the camera and points to one that was originally published in 1988 in Chris’ landmark book, In Flagrante – a depiction of the hopelessness found in the northeast under Thatcher’s government. “I think dad did an amazing job picking that image out; it’s an image of a skinhead, he’s wearing a T-shirt that says ‘conflict liberates’, he’s falling to his knees and is supported by a member in the crowd.”
As for the rest of the series, Matthew explains how it’s less about the singular pictures and more about the sequencing. One, in particular, is that of a young man with a chain around his neck. “In a few of the images, you get this real sense of revelry and of the people losing themselves in this moment, which on the one hand is very chaotic and turbulent, but it also releases this feeling of coming out of yourself. I feel that this sequence has been communicated really well.” Chris cuts in to say how the images on this page were in fact taken on three different nights – “you wouldn’t know this,” he says, “but I can tell by the slight nuance in the guy’s hair.”
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The Station, 1985. © Chris Killip, 2020
Chris’ momentous career has seen him work on various projects, including Isle of Man: A book about the Manx in 1980 with a text by John Berger, In Flagrante, of course, plus a documentation of Seacoal camps that saw him turn a lens on the traveller residents in Lynemouth, Northumberland in 1976. A mammoth archive to say the least, it comes to no surprise to hear he’s had a great influence on his son. “I grew up in a house with two photographer parents. My dad never sat me down and directly imparted his theories about photography or anything like that, but I can’t help but be influenced by him,” says Matthew, looking back to the days when his father would take him to see the Seacoal camps at a young age, showing him things that he wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to otherwise.
As a filmmaker, too, Matthew has always been keen to ask for his dad’s opinion, often showing him early edits so that he can get useful feedback. “A lot of the time I listen to what he says and I take it on board – not always, but it’s important to show people that you feel would understand you and what you’re trying to do, and you also need to respect them. Of course, my dad is one of the few people that I have like that – so I will always be showing him what I do.” Chris now shares the news that his son’s short film has just won first prize at the Sundance Film Festival, titled John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. “I’m a very proud dad; it’s a beautiful film.”
GalleryChris Killip: In Flagrante
As for this wonderfully creative exchange, it works two ways. “Well, obviously I would not have done The Station without Matthew,” observes Chris, “and I wouldn’t have opened up the box – Pandora’s Box would still be there, unopened. I listen to him because he’s visually sharp.”
“It’s a funny one,” Matthew contests, “because dad often takes it on board but he doesn’t really want to talk about it. He has to go and digest what you’ve said – he listens to it, and then he retreats and has to think about it.”
“Well, it’s worse than that,” Chris adds, “I usually go off grumpily,” reluctantly taking notes in the process so that it goes in later on. “When you’re dealing with your own son, we both have a lot of baggage about each other, so it can be tense. But I also respect his judgements.”
This admirable father-son relationship has resulted in The Station being given the life that it deserves, even if it’s a mammoth 30 years down the line. Alongside this release, Chris has plans to continue working on a book of portraits and on a new re-print of Skinningrove – a documentation of an isolated fishing community in north Yorkshire that, in a similar vein to The Station, has had two pictures previously published within In Flagrante. It’s clear that Chris has an undeniable passion for book-making, but whether or not his archives will remain archived, well that’s a different story. “I’m leaving dad to the archives for now,” says Matthew, and Chris responds wishing that he’d come in and make more discoveries. “It would be great, but I don’t think there are any more.” Matthew concludes: “You never know.”
The Station, 1985. © Chris Killip, 2020