While photographer Chris Killip was known as a social documentarian, his upbringing on the Isle of Man meant it was inevitable he’d take a few extraordinary moto photos.  A legend in photographic circles, and a professor of visual and environmental studies at Harvard from 1991-2017, Killip was born in Douglas, where his parents owned the Highlander Pub – perhaps you’ve had a pint there on a trip to Mona’s Isle?  Who knows what inspired the son of pubholders to take up a camera as a profession, but of course, a public house is a natural place to develop one’s skills at social observation at a neutral distance: the parade of customers passing through are highlighted on a gimlet-lit stage, locals and tourists in a never-ending spectacle.

From Chris Killip’s book ‘Isle of Man 1971. [Chris Killip]
Killip left school at 16 to train as a hotel manager, work in his parents’ pub, and photograph tourists at the beach.  He moved to London at 18 (1964) and worked as an apprentice commercial photographer under Adrian Flowers.  He soon went freelance, alternating work in the pub with photo gigs, but by 1969 he abandoned commercial photography to pursue his own work. He won fellowships from several local arts councils to photograph local cultures in the northeast of England, including Bury St Edmonds, Huddersfield, and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, all of which were experiencing major economic changes as local industries (coal mining, shipbuilding, heavy industry) began to disappear in the 1970s and 80s.  As he explained in 2019, “I didn’t set out to be the photographer of the English de-Industrial Revolution. It happened all around me during the time I was photographing.”

A secretary in the late 1970s, Tyneside. [Chris Killip]
Killip became one of the most important photographers of the 1970s and ’80s, mingling with very ‘local’ communities around the UK that were left behind in a major global shift of Capital.  He immersed himself into the towns and people he photographed, and made deeply personal imagery of the Isle of Man, beaches, council estates, or in the mosh pit of a punk show.  He became a familiar figure at underground punk clubs in Gateshead in the 1980s, and captured the raw vitality of the scene in a manner only possible by a participant with camera in hand. He also documented the coal miners of Lynemouth, who, as he said, “had history done to them.”

West End, Newcastle. Father and son.
From the project ‘In Flagrante’ 1973-1985. [Chris Killip]
Killip’s breakthrough book collecting his photographic work in the northeast of England was published in 1988 as In Flagrante, with a text by art critic/theoretician John Berger and Sylvia Grant.  Shot on 4×5″ black-and-white film, these portraits of Tyneside’s working class communities are now recognized as among the most important visual records of 1980s Britain. Critic Robert Ayers called it “one of the greatest photography books ever published.”

From his documentation of the punk scene in the northeast of England. [Chris Killip]
His photographic work documenting the Isle of Man TT Races date from 1971, and have only recently been published in a unique (and inexpensive – £6.70!) edition by Cafe Royal Books.  The collection is like no other TT photos I’ve seen: they feature none of the romance of racing, only its grittiness, its working class participants, and the dramatic changes to the ‘biker’ in the post-Easy Rider era.  Chris Killip kindly allowed me to include one of his photos in my most recent book ‘Ton Up!’, in the chapter about the 1970s (order a signed copy here!).  British motorcyclists of the 1960s were basically ‘straight-edge’, eschewing alcohol and drugs in order to keep their wits about them while riding fast.  By 1971, the rules had clearly changed, with the bikers aping American B-movie styles for their motorcycles and riding gear, and looking fairly wasted. In this era, the term ‘Rocker’ became synonymous with bikers on drugs with crappy choppers, and the old cafe racer vibe was long gone.

From ‘Ton Up!’ – a cafe racer BSA rider at Douglas, Isle of Man, in 1971. [Chris Killip]
Killip’s books have been been recently published, including In Flagrante, and Cafe Royal sells a 5-volume set of their collaboration with the photographer over the past few years, before his death of cancer in 2020.   They include:  Isle of Man TT Races 1971, Huddersfield 1974, The Seaside 1975–1981, Shipbuilding on Tyneside 1975–1976, and Askam-in-Furness 1982.  They can be ordered individually, check out the Cafe Royal website here.

More from the Isle of Man, 1971. [Chris Killip]
If you’re in the UK, there’s currently an excellent Chris Killip retrospective exhibition at Baltic in Gateshead.

‘Isle of Man TT Races 1971’, from Cafe Royal Books


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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