THE LAST SHIPS 1975–77
”While I couldn’t help making the photographs of shipbuilding that I made, it was a personal obsession. At the time I didn’t exhibit or show them to anyone as I didn’t want to be thought of as an industrial photographer. I had a sense that all this was not going to last, although I had no idea how soon it would all be gone. I became the photographer of the de-industrial revolution by default, I didn’t set out to be this. It’s what was happening all around me during the time I was photographing.”
— Chris Killip
Chris Killip is known for a number of bodies of documentary work from the 1980’s, particularly his projects on the north east of England such as the seacoalers on the beaches of Lynemouth and life in the tiny steel town / fishing village of Skinningrove. His seminal book In Flagrante was republished as In Flagrante Two by Stiedel in 2017, which was good news for those of us who missed it first time round as second hand copies of the original now fetch hundreds of pounds. I don’t know how different the reprint is to the original, and I don’t know if it contains the infuriating lack of contextual text that pretty much every other photobook has. But they are enough articles about Chris Killip on the internet to provide the background context to his work.
That whinge aside, In Flagrante Two is a classic, and well worth picking up before prices start going silly. And it was in this book that an intriguing picture caught my eye, the image of the supertanker Tyne Pride looming over the cobbled backstreets of Wallsend. But it was a single image with no other information other than a title. So that was that.
However, in the following years, more of this series came to light as Killip revisited his archive following his retirement as Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. The result was the publication of ‘The Last Ships’ by Pony Box and an exhibition of the same name at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. I’ve not yet had chance to visit Newcastle, but I was fortunate to get hold of a copy of The Last Ships before it sold out.
The photographs were taken between 1975-77 when Swan Hunter in Wallsend were building a fleet of enormous supertankers at their yard on the Tyne. The sheer size of these 250000 ton vessels is demonstrated by the way they dominate the local landscape, looming over the streets of terraced houses that were probably built for the shipyard workers in Victorian times.
But this was the end of an era for the area. Ships of this size were never built again here (or anywhere in the UK), although shipbuilding did continue at a declining rate until 2006. The streets of houses were in decline through the period that the photographs were taken, and were being demolished when Killip made his last photos in 1977.
I have no connection with the north east nor shipbuilding, but these photographs moved me. Maybe it was the photographs of the young children in the streets, children who were only slightly older than me but in a different community in a different part of the country. I grew up in a northern mill town, and while I grew up in a modern suburb, the reminders of the towns industrial past were nearby. Sure, I didn’t have a mill at the end of the street, although a derelict bleachworks lay just through the woods at the end of our street and the gigantic chimney was visible from my bedroom window until it was felled in the late 80’s. Industrial decline in Bolton perhaps wasn’t as harshly felt in the 70’s and 80’s as it was in Newcastle as the local pits were long gone and most of the mills had already closed. I wonder who these children were in the streets of Wallsend, I wonder what their thoughts were about these gigantic ships at the end of the street, what the impact was on them of the clearance of these communities and the run down of the yards were their fathers maybe worked? Maybe it was a good thing, maybe not.
So, I have a kind of detached empathy for the photographs ind the subject matter, and the photo looking down the backsteet was my inspiration for my photograph of Beehive Mill in Bolton, which I guess is my version of that scene even though this wasn’t the area of town I grew up in. Yes, I know, it’s a different era but I took this because what was once a familiar scene in the north is now becoming a rare site. Indeed this scene had hanged forever as Beehive Mill has since been demolished, so to me this is as much about change as the scenes of Wallsend.
Getting back to the Pony Box publication, it is printed as a newspaper sized zine rather than a proper book (which has made storage on a bookshelf a challenge), the large-ish 380x289mm size paper makes for a decent image size, as befits something of the scale of the subject matter. It is only large in the dimensions of the paper though – you only got 28 pages for your £30. Think of it as a large scale Cafe Royal zine, if you are familiar with Craig Atkinson’s brilliant publications. Interestingly, Cafe Royal has published a number of zines of Chris Killip’s work, albeit at the much smaller A5 size.
Chris Killip wasn’t the only photographer to photograph these scenes – let’s face it, something of this size is always going to attract an audience. Peter Loud also took some similar photographs at the same time, and you can also buy prints from him of these remarkable scenes (I’ve not asked, but I doubt you’d be able to get a print from Chris Killip unless you were to go to his gallery representative and pay them a lot of money). In fact it was Loud’s photographs that were rediscovered first, and were used by Sting in publicity for his musical ‘The Last Ship’. Peter is a great guy and I have one of these prints in my collection, which complements my copy of Chris Killip’s Last Ships nicely!
My friend Katriina Etholen has also written about these photographs on her marvellously eclectic blog. Unlike me she has managed to visit the exhibition in Newcastle at the Laing, which is embarrassing as she lives in Finland and I live in Lancashire. Definitely need to get to the Laing once it reopens after lockdown!