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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Bill Brandt & Chris Killip, London

Tate Britain, Free

17.10.22 - 15.01.23

Photographers' Gallery, £8 / 5

07.10.22 - 19.02.23

‘In Autumn 1969, while in New York for a commercial photo shoot, a visit to Bill Brandt’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art would cause Killip’s life to change course again. It was the permanent collection that inspired him most…’

This introductory panel to Chris Killip’s retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery hardly posits a clear connection between the pair. Having gone to Brandt's show at MOMA, it was apparently photos by Paul Strand, Robert Frank and Walker Evans that had more of an impact on him. A quick glance at their various oeuvres makes that influence clear enough.

But is there more to say on these two notable British photographers? Was Brandt’s influence so incidental? And if so, is there anything to be gained from the comparison? As luck would have it, you can currently go to a free exhibition of Brandt’s work at Tate Britain (Inside the Mirror) before catching the tube up to see Killip’s retrospective just off Oxford Street. Aside from the cultural cache of this black and white double-header, it’s a rare opportunity to put an extensive body of their work in conversation.

Above L to R: Chris Killip, ‘Catherine Garrett, Ballacubbon’ (1972); ‘Mr ‘Johnny’ Moore, Ballalona’ (1971); Bill Brandt, ‘Crowded, Improvised Air-Raid Shelter in a Liverpool St. Tube Tunnel,’ (1940)

The introductions to both Brandt and Killip begin with fairly lengthy biographies. Artists have long enjoyed this scene setting, but for photographers whose work borders on documentary it’s more than just preamble. A certain degree of intentionality seems required to elevate things to ‘art’. As interesting as this all is, I have the gnawing sense that some kind of justificatory preface lets the viewer know that these people have indeed suffered for their art, had their moment of conversion or something similar. Sure enough, Brandt started fiddling about with a camera whilst recovering from tuberculosis; Killip had the eye-opening moment described above.

As much as his photos observe, they were also the ticket in – without the camera, he would not have seen many of the things he did.

Having established that photography can be art, and these are indeed artists, a far more significant trait they possessed in common was the degree to which they were outsiders. Brandt, born in Hamburg in 1902 to a British father and German mother, moved to London in '33, where he would remain for the rest of his life; Killip hailed from the Isle of Man, one of those places that most of us in the UK will sadly never visit, let alone understand. It’s almost a trope for photographers of their ilk to possess this kind of background. Brassai – a clear influence on both Brandt and Killip, especially the former – left Hungary for Paris in 1924. Whilst there, he would photograph what he called ‘a fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts,’ of Paris in the 20s and 30s. As much as his photos observe, they were also the ticket in – without the camera, he would not have seen many of the things he did. The outsider’s search for outsiders persists in some of Brandt and Killip’s work, the camera remaining their point of entry. The former would visit industrial Halifax and maids in well-to-do houses; the latter rural farmers, fisherman and Travellers across the British Isles.

At the start of the 1970s, Killip took a number of portraits on his native Isle of Man. These photographs open the exhibition, and indicate straight away how much use he made of texture. The smooth hands of ‘Catherine Garrett, Ballacubbon’ (1972) emerge from her thick knitted jumper (above) contrasting the rough mortared wall behind; ‘Mr ‘Johnny’ Moore, Ballalona’ (1971) frames the man’s penetrating stare with grizzled face. Many of Brandt’s shots of people were highly staged in contrast to Killip’s more natural aesthetic, and in his later years included portraits of celebrity figures. But interestingly enough, work of his that featured ordinary people – from coal miners to those sheltering in air raid shelters – made use of perhaps his most distinctive trait, too: contrasting light and shadow. One of his photos from the improvised air-raid shelter at Liverpool St. (1940) is one of those extraordinarily fortuitous compositional arrangements, beautifully accentuated by the tonal contrasts he draws out.

Above: left, Bill Brandt, 'Hog in Bog' (1932); right, Chris Killip, 'Brussel Sprouts, Gateshead' (1977).

Both Brandt and Killip tinkered with surrealist ideas, no surprise in the former’s case having worked in Man Ray’s studio in the early 30s. ‘Hog in bog’ (1932) plays on the shared texture of pig and muddy surrounds as the animal is sublimated in the landscape, but the photo is predominantly constructed through the arrangement of dark and light bands of mud, grass and sky that proceed from halfway. Like Brandt’s photo, Killip’s ‘Brussel Sprouts, Gateshead’ (1977) possesses a strong sense of formal division through tone (here working in thirds), but the bands are enriched with a feeling of soil, board and the ethereal sky that Brandt’s doesn’t quite possess. Despite Brandt’s interest in the shared feel of pig and mud in his photo, this is another indication of Killip’s much greater concern with textural contrasts whether dealing with landscapes, portraits or some of his more abstracted images.

Above: left, Bill Brandt, 'Nude, Campden Hill' (1957); right, Bill Brandt, 'Nude (Foot on Beach)' (1954).

For Brandt, surreal touches in his early work developed into plays with form, particularly pairings of the body and natural features. Yet my sense is that compositional arrangement remained the driving force behind his work. ‘Nude (Foot on Beach)’ (1954) unsettles a potentially casual comparison between the form of foot and rocks by sticking it in your face, breaking the harmony of the neatly quartered beach backdrop. In ‘Nude, Campden Hill’ (1957) the body plays between abstraction and being a torso and a pair of legs, but it’s the arrangement of diagonals through and across the image, together with the deep contrasts of light and dark space that make it what it is.

The arrangement of things in a given field of vision is a fundamental aspect of photography, so it’s no great surprise that this is a foundation of both Brandt and Killip’s work. This is especially true in those that exploit architecture where the choice of parts of buildings, and the balancing of them with ground and sky is the basis of the shot. Brandt’s ‘Regency Houses, Park Lane, Mayfair’ (1930-39) toys with the division into thirds, but both the creeping edge of the building to left and the dark central continuing beyond the frame unsettle things somewhat. His use of blown-out tones, the dark and light contrast, is evident again with almost all notes of texture removed. Killip’s ‘Killingworth Newtown, Woman and Child’ (1976) similarly delights in its big vertical pillars, horizontal buildings, and repeated diagonals of pavement, reservation and fence. There’s plenty of contrasting light and shadow here, too – each quarter of the image has its own character – but Killip’s use of texture in the building potted with windows and the grassy verge are elements that Brandt spurned in favour of deeper tonal contrasts.

Above L to R: Bill Brandt, 'Regency Houses, Park Lane, Mayfair' (1930-39); right, Chris Killip, 'Killingworth Newtown, Woman and Child' (1976); Bill Brandt, 'Halifax Pawnbroker' (1937).

Another element these images share is the deft introduction of human, figural elements. In Brandt’s ‘Halifax Pawnbroker’ (1937), the eye is drawn down to the man on the corner, his back to us, monolithic, whilst the children play in the foreground. The young and old don’t conflict here, but form part of the fabric of the place in complementary ways. A different sense of time is present with the horse drawn carriage of his ‘Regency Houses’ coupled with the London bus behind; the silhouette of the top-hat wearing driver the only face we can clearly make out. There’s no sense of opposition between these modern and antiquated elements, the grid of railings that runs across helping to unite them. This vision of the city was evidently something Brandt believed at the time, publishing ‘Unchanging London’ in Lilliput magazine in 1939. Nine of his photographs were paired with a series of Gustave Doré engravings made in 1872. I have to say I find these diptychs a touch banal, but they evidently appealed at the time, giving Brandt a certain amount of notoriety just before the War.[1]

Above: excerpt from 'Unchanging London' Bill Brandt / Gustave Doré, (1939).

Killip’s use of human touches at times turned his architectural photos into full-blown dramas. ‘Killingworth Newtown, Woman and Child’ is a case in point: the figures are caught on the cusp of darkness; the child strides forwards, light catching their face as they look towards us; the woman behind, stooped, static and silhouetted. Take this story where you want. ‘Burnt out flats, West End of Newcastle’ (1975) is subtle at first, until you start to put together the smashed windows and soot-marked walls with the washing that's out to dry. It took me a moment to scan upwards to the rafters and chimneys, laid bare after a fire. Killip picked up on this powerful contrast as it features in ‘Housing estate, North Shields’ (1981), washing line and charred buildings providing the backdrop to the kids in front. It’s clear from all of these just how central line was in his work, particularly the middle, upright boy in his 1981 shot; the path behind him leads us back to contemplate the setting and, as a result, the lives these kids were living.[2]

Above: left, Chris Killip, 'Housing Estates, West End of Newcastle' (1975); right, 'Housing Estate, North Shields' (1981).

There’s an interesting comparison to Brandt’s ‘Hail, Hell & Halifax’ (1937), where the children playing in the foreground light are surrounded by ominous and impenetrable shadows of buildings. The children run free, but the sense of inevitable oppression is overwhelming. Both photographers have used line similarly, but Brandt’s contrasting tones – which he has drawn out by modifying the image to make some portions entirely black – are a world apart from Killip’s use of motifs.

Above: two versions of 'Hail, Hell & Halifax' (1937) by Bill Brandt. Both have been modified, but the image on the left (featured in the exhibition) has had more of the lower buildings and road covered, whilst that on the right (Brandt archive) has altered smoke.

Although Brandt took a series of shots over his career of specific places in time – Halifax being one of them – the exhibition itself dips in and out of these without quite presenting a full package. This is understandable given that it's a show based on the Tate's own collection. By contrast, the sense of documentary in Killip’s work is given ample space, especially pronounced in those focusing on the Northumberland Seacoal pickers (1981-84), and the fishing community of Skinningrove (1982-84). They’re notable as subjects go – Travellers and fisherman – for being two groups that people tend to imagine as having little particular attachment to architecture. For all that these photos capture a sense of place, they are portraits of individuals, groups and the communities at large giving focus to his representation of their extraordinary lives.

Above: photos from Chris Killip's collection on Skinningrove (1982-84).

The Skinningrove series moves between single and group portraits, the figure of Leso emerging as central; out at sea, sat in his boat with friends around. There’s a brilliant pairing in the show of two shots: one with some of these men in full punk regalia, the other of the old-boys of town, no-less in uniform, but this time flat-caps, jackets and trousers. Perhaps the most powerful single picture of the exhibition is the shot of Simon Coultas (1983). His father David and Leso both drowned; the photo shows him at sea for the first time after their deaths. It’s a photo you wish had never had cause to be taken, but from that moment has come something very beautiful.

Above: Chris Killip , Simon Coultas being taken to sea for the first time since his father David drowned, (1983).

So what of the comparison? Brandt and Killip, tone and texture? For both, black and white photography was a good fit; the absence of colour allowed them to focus on these aspects of their images. Brandt, known for shadow and light, sure enough comes out of the comparison as a master of its possibilities. The photos in this exhibition are predominantly from Tate’s own collections, and there is more to Brandt’s work than what is gathered here. But I came away with a clearer sense of how far he was prepared to suppress other features of his images, notably texture, to achieve these effects. It’s also clear that much of his play with tone was in the service of arranging the composition, obtaining a sense of balance through plays with line and form. All of this fascination is present in Killip’s work, too, but texture plays a much greater part in how he achieves such effects. The sense of the world that comes through his photos is granular; there is complication. As beautiful as some of Brandt’s images may be, the big tonal contrasts in his photos act as a gloss on the world, even when dealing with dirt, grim and hardship.


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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[1] This was when Brandt would produce some of his most iconic images of air-raid shelters, bombed out buildings and London at night. These are not the focus of this exhibition, but given his use of tonal contrasts, subjects that he excelled in.

[2] Killip's arrangement was a very formal way of arranging the scene, best seen by comparing his work to near contemporary and Newcastle local, Tish Murtha. Her shots of almost exactly the same settings open up these young peoples lives in very different ways.


Further Reading:

The artist and critique David Campany has written several books and articles on both Brandt and Killip, a great deal of which you can access on his website.

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1 Comment

Sunita De Souza
Sunita De Souza
Dec 19, 2022

“Hog in Bog” will forever and always live in my mind rent free

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