Helen and Her Hula-hoop, Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1984 (picture: Chris Killip)

Chris Killip (1946-2020) was one of the greatest photographers ever to have worked in Britain.  A superb survey of his work at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead proves that fact abundantly.

The essence of Killip’s work is a deep, almost ­forensic, humanism. He was fascinated by working people, often those on the margins of society, both in urban and rural environments.

Killip was not only ­interested in working people and their communities, but he also cared about them deeply.

His photographs from the early-1980s of ­precarious workers on the beach at Lynemouth, Northumberland, are a fine example of this.

In the shadows of the nearby coal mine and power station, these people were engaged in the dirty and often dangerous, work of collecting the “seacoal”. This was coal that had washed up on the beach and in the shallows of the North Sea coast.

As ever with Killip’s ­photographs, there is a tremendous sense of the dignity of the people he was photographing and of the resilience of their home lives and ­leisure pursuits.

However, at the same time, he still manages to convey the dreadful privations of labour carried out on the most extreme periphery of the capitalist economy. And he shows the impoverished reality of these families’ conditions of life.   

Killip’s pictures of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 convey both the epic scale of that struggle and the photographer’s strong sense of solidarity with the miners and mining communities.

“Miners’ Strike, Easington, Co Durham, 1984” is one of Killip’s most famous images. It is also one of his best. There is an extraordinary, bleak humour in this shot of a miner standing at his front door, teacup in hand, while a large group of cops in riot gear lurk around the corner.  

The cops stand ­immediately to the side of his house, some of them grinning inanely at the camera. Few images of the strike capture more powerfully the reality of “Maggie Thatcher’s boot boys”, as the police were widely known by working class people at the time. 

The photo reveals how the police operated as an army of occupation in mining communities during the dispute.  There’s also the satire of the cops in an excellent photo from the 1985 Durham Miners’ Gala. 

It shows a worker ­wearing a pig mask and a police helmet, while people around him brandish Socialist Worker placards proclaiming “Victory to the miners”.  

Chris Killip, retrospective is at the Baltic Centre, Gateshead, until 3 September. For details go to bit.ly/Killip0523

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