Why is great British documentary photography overlooked at home?
Photographer Chris Killip has a major retrospective show in Germany – but his gritty, hard-hitting images of England deserve more recognition from British galleries
Time for recognition ... Photographer Chris Kilip. Photograph: Kent Rodzwicz
Last week, a major retrospective of Chris Killip's work opened in the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany. For the uninitiated, Killip is a British photojournalist whose best known work is a book called In Flagrante, published in 1988, and is sometimes described as "the most important photobook to come out of England in the 1980s." (It currently changes hands on the collectors' market for £300 to £400, but you can purchase a recent reissue from Errata Editions for just under £30.) See for a review ...
Killip belongs to a generation of great British photojournalists that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and also includes Tony Ray-Jones, Graham Smith, Chris Steele-Perkins and Brian Griffin. All worked predominantly in black-and-white and looked long and hard at the changing face of British society in the 1970s and 1980s. Though it would be hard to think of another British photobook as influential as In Flagrante, Killip's work, like that of his contemporaries, is all but overlooked by British curators at the moment. The fact that a major retrospective of his work is currently taking place in Germany rather than in his native Britain surely raises questions for our major art institutions, not least why it wasn't held at Tate Britain or the Hayward, which seems to have all but given up on photography of late. Or at the Baltic in Gateshead? (Killip lived and worked just across the Tyne in Newcastle from 1975 until the late 1980s, and made some of his most powerful images in the north-east.)
Surely, too, a group retrospective of the above-named pioneers of British photojournalism is long overdue? My instinct is that this kind of work has long been out of fashion with our arbiters of culture in Britain. It is black-and-white, gritty, hard hitting and politically provocative – the photography critic, Gerry Badger, correctly described In Flagrante as "taken from the point of view that opposed everything Thatcher stood for". For all the above reasons, of course, Killip's brilliantly composed photographs have a certain renewed potency at a time of enforced austerity in a Britain that is, if anything, even more divided. More than that, though, they are great photographs per se and, as such, should be seen. It's time the lost generation of great British documentary photographers were acknowledged for their groundbreaking work at home as well as abroad.
• Watch a slideshow of Chris Killip's images on his website