I recently ordered Inflagrante Two, a republished and updated version of a book of photographs by Chris Killip, originally published in 1988. I saw Killip’s work at Tate Britain and wrote about my impressions on my TAOP blog. I loved the images I saw, the grainy black and white style, and powerful social documentary. I wanted to buy a book but the gallery shop only had his work Seacoal, which was not what had been exhibited. I bought it anyway as I really loved how powerful his photographs were. The book was extremely evocative; as was the story about how Killop ended up shooting that community, a process that was not easily won – in fact it took him several years to be allowed in. But I was also a bit disappointed not to have some of the images I’d seen in the gallery, as they really were very strong indeed.
When I saw that Inflagrante had been republished I didn’t hesitate to order it because I really wanted to have access to more of Killip’s work. The book is large – an oversized edition, and the images are printed on one side of a double page spread, on the right hand side, mostly in landscape but surprisingly there are also a few portrait so you must turn the book to view those. Apart from the title page and a couple of pages at the back of the book with thumbnails and titles, as well as some dates, and library info on the other side, there is no text – the image is all. The lack of text has a resounding impact – the silence, not having any syntax or written authoritative ‘voice’, not even an introduction or anything, seems oddly like a very ‘loud’ absence in a way. There is no one telling you what you ought to think or how you should see these images. There is a void – you are left without anyone’s contextualised views about the places and people in the images – only Killip’s visual record. You are simply required to look and respond yourself. It takes some confidence in the images to do that, I should think. To insist on having no accompanying introduction waxing lyrical about the photographer or the photographs.
All the images were taken between 1973 – 1985. It’s strange for me to see these images. They are so very English. But not the England that existed in my imagination and thought I yearned for as I grew up in South Africa. Instead it is the England that my ex boyfriend who grew up in Cumbria told me about. An England, at best forgotten about during the era we think of as dominated by Thatcherism. At worst, deliberately dismantled and eroded. The images show you a world that is very different to the idealised images you might have seen via advertising and media during that era.
Last night as I looked through the photographs I was instantly and overwhelmingly affected by one picture in particular (click on link). The image is of a trestle table with abandoned sandwiches set out on a street. Behind it there are posters of Charles and Diana, and anyone who was alive and sentient at that time can deduce that this must be have been a street party to celebrate the royal wedding. A wedding for a marriage that has been scrutinised in the press to the nth degree and is now widely considered to have been a sham, or at least an unfortunate and unhappy arrangement. At the time of it – the expectation of joy that usually surrounds marriages, and especially royal marriages, had made its way over to South Africa and I remember watching the ceremony on TV in Jo’burg with my parents, both of whom were English, and another family where the husband and mother in law were Londoners but the wife was South African. We watched it at this other family’s house, in their font room. Although there were no street parties in SA, none that I remember, we were all very excited and impressed by the pomp and splendour. Street parties like the one in the picture seem typically English and quite foreign to me. I attended one for the fist time when the more recent royal wedding took place, and when street parties were held all over the country too, perhaps in a bid to try and recapture some kind of nostalgic metaphoric time travel. I’m not sure how they will have felt in the past but the one I went to seemed odd – like we were reenacting a scene from a play I’d been in at University which was set during WW2, like we were acting something out.
It’s hard for me to look at images with unpolitised eyes and see only the things that are actually in the image. So I asked my 11-year-old to tell me what his impressions of the wedding picture were. He said England looks awful, tacky and grimy. I asked him about the posters on the door but he had no idea who or what they were about. He said he wouldn’t like to go there.
When I look at the image I see what look like grotesque caricatures of Charles and Diana in the background, smiling with these bizarre teeth that are so whitened that their faces, Charles in particular, look like masks. They represent an institution I have no understanding of. An institution that seems entirely rooted in history books and totally out of context for today. I have no problem with the individuals that are photographed in the posters – how can I? I do not know them and am extremely unlikely to ever meet any living royals in my lifetime. I do not understand the system they represent. Because I did not grow up here I do not understand the fascination people have with royal family members beyond the fact they are rich and impossibly groomed. Of course, I am, like anyone fascinated in a prurient way by the salivating details that get leaked to the press occasionally – it’s hard not to succumb to that aspect of our human nature. Gossip is always tasty, isn’t it? But beyond that… I am at a loss. And when I look at that image, I do not understand why people with so very little would look up to them, and want to celebrate that wedding. Actually, I do understand the historical context, the habit, the centuries of serfdom and royal patronage, echoes of which seem so hard for Britons to let go of; but I do not like it. Perhaps not everyone did want to celebrate the wedding. But there was a social compulsion to do so.
The masks in the posters look down over a street that looks dilapidated and as my son says, grimy. The posters themselves are pasted on the door of someone who clearly wanted to get involved, who evidently felt strongly that a royal marriage was something to get excited about. The entire door is covered in the Union Jack and the crazy mask like faces of the couple as well as one of the Queen (I hate putting a capital there but it looks so wrong without it!) The door beside the decorated one has nothing on it. In fact I almost missed the fact there even was a door behind all that propaganda. The people living behind that door were effectively subsumed by royals. There is a total dichotomy. A blank door with a broken post box, behind which apparently lived someone who perhaps couldn’t give two hoots, or simply didn’t have the wherewithal to put up posters. For whatever reason the two doors come to represent the possibility of two opposing relationships with the royal wedding within the context of that street. The street represents so many streets across Britian
Some of food on the table has been eaten and what’s been left looks abandoned, dry and stale. It appears to be relatively inexpensive food along with some homemade simple cup cakes. (Quite different from the posh cheeses and pates that all went to waste at the street party I attended; no one seemed to eat very much then. And there was also a lot of wine. As well, the people who baked cakes seemed to have gone to quite a lot of effort – many of my friends and people who live nearby are heavily influenced by the plethora of cooking and baking programmes and have become really good at making extravagant cakes). There are two blurry figures on the edge of the frame and seem to be just getting on with their day – they may have been passers-by or may have joined in but in this picture they’re leaving the scene. Perhaps they are off to watch the ceremony although I suspect the street party began after the ceremony had been televised. There is a boy who seems to have caught Killip’s eye and is watching him take the photograph. The balloons to the left seem like a slightly pathetic token gesture. Over the table and on the street there are shadows of bunting, another sign of ‘party’, of celebration – but only the shadow, just a shade of dark hanging over the scene. The actual bunting is outside the frame. The ‘celebration’ aspect in the picture appears ignored. It is tired and perhaps even incongruous.
Who knows what sort of party is going on outside the picture. There is no way of knowing. But Killop has chosen to show this – a sad, tired old bunch of stale sandwiches in front to two very different doors.
I felt incredibly emotional when I saw the photograph. It had a strong impact on me. There was so much to be angry about, seeing people with comparatively little being expected to celebrate a marriage that would have cost goodness knows how much money to stage. And to know, when looking at it through history, what a tragic farce the whole marriage must have been from the very start. (And of course, the dramatic ending to Diana’s life will also have some importance in the way in which the photograph is viewed today, although I can’t quite work that out yet.)
The three strongest points in the image for me are those crazy masks in the posters – those teeth; along with the abandoned stale sandwiches and sausage rolls – they look like the limp and tired ends to a rubbish party; and the boy who watches Killop take the photograph. He’s of his time. He’s a little boy. He’s the future of that street, a future which at that moment looks like it might be rather bleak.
My old friend from Cumbria said that there were towns all over England like the one he came from, and like the one in the picture, that were totally forgotten about during the eighties. Killop’s camera is documenting those towns and communities in Inflagrante Two. I’m very pleased to have the book. I would recommend it to others.
Inflagrante was first published 1988 and then revised and republished by Steidle in 2015
Image sourced at Musea Oriena Sofia http://www.museoreinasofia.es At:http://www.museoreinasofia.es/sites/default/files/descargas/14-chris_killip_0.jpg (Accessed on 7 April 2016)