Demolition sights

Photographer Chris Killip portrays the victims of Britain's Thatcher era

'Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976,' by Chris Killip.
'Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976,' by Chris Killip.courtesy of museum folkwang, essen

The scorched-earth policies that Margaret Thatcher enacted in the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990 transformed its industrial landscape. Where there had once been factories and mines, only grass remained — which said little about those who had worked and lived there until they lost everything.

The faces of these people is what most interests Chris Killip, who, along with Martin Parr, Tom Wood and Paul Graham, is one of the most important documentary photographers working today. His photographs from those years are the stars of Work, which runs at the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid until February 24. The exhibition features 100 black-and-white images in which Killip, who now teaches at Harvard University, relates real life in the north of England between 1968 and 2004. Relaxed and chatty, he remembers how he started out in the world of photography at the tender age of 18. "I was working as an assistant and I had to ask the people being photographed to smile at the camera," he recalls. "It was a job I did for the cash and I left it forever after a trip to New York where in the MoMA I got to see the work of [Bill] Brandt, Walker Evans and August Sander."

On his return he decided to use his camera as a political tool and committed himself to the changes going on around him. He began taking portraits of everyday people as well as his acquaintances, such as the young Martin Amis and Ian Dury. But his first series was taken in the pub his family owned back home on the Isle of Man: "To get to know places, you have to go back time and time again. And, suddenly, you see. I say to my students that the important thing is to know how to look."

From the Isle of Man, the exhibition moves to Huddersfield, where in the town's textile factories Killip made his first photographic foray into industrial England. It then stays in the north, where coal, steel and shipbuilding had been a way of life for generations. Killip says he arrived in Newcastle in 1975 with a grant to stay two years but ended up staying 16, recording life there in his series Northeast (1975-1988). He never suspected that all that industry would end up being dismantled. "Neither the factories, the mines, nor the best part of the people exist. The remains of that life have disappeared and I want them to at least stay in the memory."

Chris Killip. Trabajo / Work. Until February 24 at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, C/ Santa Isabel 52, Madrid. www.museoreinasofia.es

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