Review – Seacoal by Chris Killip

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In 1976 the photographer Chris Killip, who had relocated from London to the north of England, first came across the beach near Lynemouth, on the Northumberland coast. He later wrote that he ‘recognised the industry above it but nothing else … the place confounded time; here the middle ages and the twentieth century intertwined’. Below on the beach, men, women and children worked to dredge coal from the stormy waters of the North Sea, selling it by the bag load and in the process eeking out a living in this most transitional and unstable of places.

After a literally and proverbially rocky start (many of the seacoalers suspected Killip of being a benefits office informer and he was run off the beach several times) he eventually spent more than a year living with and photographing the community on the beach. The resulting images formed an important part of his seminal 1988 book In Flagrante, on the deindustrialisation of the north of east, and in 2011 a book of the Seacoal photographs was published by Steidl. As part of Disphotic’s focus this month on austerity and recession, I thought now would be an interesting time to revisit it.

The lore of the beach held that the coal came from an underwater seam but according to Killip it more likely washed from the spoil of Ellington Colliery, several miles along the coast, which mined coal from deep under the North Sea. Throughout his photographs of the beach, the horizon is marked by chimneys, perhaps belonging to the colliery or the nearby Lynmouth power station. They loom in the distance, belching black smoke like a constant reminder of the ultimate fate of the coal, and the Sisyphean endlessness of the seacoaler’s labour.

A single man owned the rights to the coal, but the sheer labour involved in it’s collection meant he needed the seacoalers, and what Killip described as an uneasy but pragmatic relationship had formed between them Many of the seacoalers were former miners, others from travelling families, like Trevor Critchlow, the man who was Killip’s entry into the community, and is a reoccurring presence in his photographs. One gets a particularly strong sense of a community, pushed together by necessity and held in check by the influence of powerful figures like Critchlow, but still riven by the rivalries and tensions that creep through any group of people.

Given Killip’s way of working with a cumbersome large format camera, the spontaneity and movement of his photographs is remarkable. At the same time the frenetic action of the beach often gives way to moments of quietness. One series of images is inside the dark of one of the caravans that formed an informal settlement at the top of the beach, the light cresting off the tired figures inside. As ever the detail and tone of Killip’s photographs is beautiful and the printing does a good job of showing this off. Seeing the Seacoal photographs in print is also a reminder that what many would really like to see is a republishing of In Flagrante, a book now so rare that even the Errata editions reprint released several years ago can be prohibitively expensive.

I noted in a recent review of an exhibition that seeing Killip’s work in chronological sequence, Seacoal feels like the post-apocalyptic future of a deindustrialised Britain, where men, women and children are forced to eke out a living from backbreaking labour. As I’ve said before in writing about other projects which are now easily dismissed as historical, the reality is this work continues, in the same form, and in other formulas. The deindustrialisation of Britain which Killip so pointedly documented might have reached it’s zenith, but the consequences linger on for huge numbers of people, and reach their nadir at times, like the present, of recession and austerity.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)