Can You Have a Favourite Exhibition? The Last Ships By Chris Killip At The Laing Gallery, Newcastle

Tyne Pride From a Back Lane, Wallsend

Get Carter is more than a film. Loved and cherished, and dearly so by the good people of Tyne and Wear, director Mike Hodges expressed a period in the North East with grit, atmosphere, and real soul. Respected hero and Photographer Chris Killip is also in this camp, masterfully capturing things as if you are observing the image live, watching their stories unfold. The Last Ships exhibition lives and belongs with all its heart to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Born in 1948, Killip had a desire to leave the Isle of Man for bigger things. He tried his hand at a beach photography and by 1964 his natural talent saw him as the third assistant to an advertising photographer in the big smoke. Feeling inspired from a trip to New York, Chris returned to the Isle of Man, camera in hand, ready to shoot things with an alternative edge. Life pressed on as he became more established and started to shoot Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds, creating the legacy Two Views – Two Cities, and then in 1975, he made a move to Newcastle, which proved a fruitful idea and leads us to The Last Ships.

His accidental timing was impeccable, between 1975 and 1977 the keen eye managed to capture shipbuilding in Wallsend and South Shields, including The Tyne Pride: the largest ship ever constructed on the river and ultimately one of the last as an end of an era was looming. Every piece is black and white and sharp as a tack, with the ship's scale against the backdrop of street life in Wallsend, proffering a War of the Worldsesque essence.

Terraced Housing in Snow, Wallsend

For shot Terraced Housing in Snow, Wallsend, you instantly feel the cold chill in more ways than one. There, in bright white paint, are the words Don’t Vote Prepare For A Revolution. There are several photographs, including Looking East on Camp Road, Wallsend, where children are creating their games with the innocence of baby deer, possibly unaware of what lays ahead, just before their treasured community came crashing to the floor along with the industry. Killip returned to the wall, and for the eerie Demolition, Wallsend, August 1977, everything was destroyed, pulled down to the floor. However, the white-painted message with its last breath of fight remained.

Men Leaving the Shipyard

The cranes are a sight to behold, almost otherworldly, along with the many men leaving their shift at the end of a hard day's graft. The images are as authentic, but there's a significant back-story, significant political messages behind them and their ascetic appeal. Wallsend was never and will never be the same again; this could be said for multiple places in the U.K. around that time.

Chris Killip sadly passed away on October 13th 2020. He left an extraordinary history where the plight must always be kept alive and passed to a new generation, and I can't help but think that a modern band that captures the soundtrack to these images is Dublin industrial poets Fontaines D.C.. Emotive, graphic and subtle, it is not a spectacle, it is not fancy, but it captures and expresses so much that needs to be said. Can you say you have a favourite exhibition, with the endless choice we have? Well, this is wholeheartedly mine.

Article by Beverley Knight