Chris Killip, In Flagrante (Errata Editions)
Ardent lovers of photography books cringe when they see the objects of their affection reduced to decoration. Think of all the interior design magazines filled with pictures of stiff-spined volumes carefully arranged on coffee tables. Such wasted pleasure! Photography books are meant to be read and shared, to wear smudges and fingerprints and signs of use.
It’s bad enough to witness the neglect of an average monograph or exhibition catalog, but a deep ache arises upon seeing an underappreciated book of pictures that the photographer selected and sequenced himself. The best of these books involve complex narratives and distinct voices. They tell stories as evocative and affecting as anything written in words.
Reading photographs isn’t hard: just open the cover. Consider the title page and study the first image. What does the photographer show? Turn the page and trace the picture with your finger. See the plot unfold. See it, that is, if you are able to find (and afford) a copy of that masterwork. Few editions exceed six or seven thousand copies and most are priced beyond the budgets of public libraries and casual enthusiasts.
Earlier this year, Errata Editions took up the mission of reprinting seminal photography books at a price that will get them into the hands of those who have coveted their neighbors’ copies ($39.95). Most exciting of the four initial offerings is Chris Killip’s In Flagrante, a book that established new ground between the zones of art and social documentary photography.
In Flagrante, originally published in 1988, is a fierce keen for the working class communities of the North of England. Killip, a native of the Isle of Man, began the project in 1976 as England’s economic policies debilitated its shipbuilding and coal-mining industries. He shot most of the pictures in the fishing village of Skinningrove and in Lynemouth, on the edge of Newcastle, where residents collected the waste coal that washed up on the beach.
On one hand, the pictures are unrelenting. Rugged-faced women bundled in wool coats take tea around a burning beach chair. Young men sniff glue in the gray midday light. Police line up behind riot shields. In a moment of levity, Killip includes a little boy gripping a toad in his grubby fists. But the weight bears down on a young girl with an eerily aged face. She plays alone on a trash-strewn beach. In this world, moments of pleasure break down into pain, like in the photograph of skinheads whose dance turns into a brawl.
But Killip’s photographs are something more remarkable than standard issue reportage. By shooting his subjects with a large format camera, taking time to frame them and focus, he injects each image with gravitas. Each careful detail shades the picture’s significance. The silvery gray tones of the black-and-white images elevate his subjects, and their prominence within the borders collapses the psychological distance among them, the photographer, and the reader. Every one of Killip’s pictures is graceful and refined, down to the balletic image of a man scavenging around a burning heap of refuse.
These scenes, the protagonists within them, and the issues with which they contend, are real. While the book can be read as a parable of the Thatcher era, Killip never set out to make an overtly political, social documentary-style account. “The book is a fiction about metaphor,” he writes in an introductory paragraph. It is a narrative of his invention. He repeats this point visually, starting and ending the book with a photograph in which his and his camera’s shadows are as prominent as the woman crumpled on the sidewalk next to them. This is Killip’s story, Killip’s view of England. It may be fiction, but don’t assume this precludes the truth.
Unfortunately, Errata’s edition of In Flagrante wrecks the scale, rhythm, and detail that contributed to the original book’s success. The book, while handsomely bound, is a couple of inches smaller than the original. Inside, the pages haven’t exactly been reprinted: they’ve been photographed from an existing copy of the book and reproduced as numbered plates. Rather than look at Killip’s photographs, a reader effectively looks at photographs of In Flagrante. In some instances, four original spreads occupy a single new one, sequenced in an awkward Z across the pages. The images are too small to catch the vivid details. You can make out the smokestacks in the distance, but you’ll miss the child peeking out from a lace curtain.
Reading this version is like studying a specimen through a glass jar. It is clinical where the original pulsed. A supplementary essay by Gerry Badger casts light on the circumstances around Killip’s project, and the edition might suffice a reader who is new to Killip’s photographs. But to those who vividly remember the original, it is a tease. For all their good intentions, Errata’s editors have checked the satisfaction of experiencing In Flagrante. Their book will take a place on a reference shelf, but it won’t win hearts, or even a place on the table.
Elizabeth Monaghan is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.