Chris Killip: The Last Ships

8 September – 23 December 2018

A photography exhibition featuring over 30 black and white images documenting the rise and fall of the shipbuilding trade in the North East of England in the 1970s.

The Last Ships by internationally-acclaimed photographer Chris Killip (born 1946) documents the lives of working people and their resilience of spirit while at the same time recording the steady decline of industrial Britain.

This exhibition, drawing from his archive, includes a huge panoramic photograph (composed of 2 original shots) depicting the building of the Tyne Pride, revealing the geometrical beauty of the ship’s construction.

Tyne Pride was one of the last super tankers built by Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd, Wallsend. The tanker’s keel was laid in June 1974, and it was completed in November 1976. It was sold for less money than it cost to build. It went through a series of name changes and was broken up in India in 2005. It could carry cargo of 119,821 tonnes, and measured 343.5 metres in length.

Initially coming to the North East in 1975 as the Northern Arts Photography Fellow (a two-year photography project jointly financed by Northern Arts and Northern Gas), Chris Killip lived and worked in Bill Quay, Gateshead, from 1975 until 1991 when he was recruited by Harvard University to teach photography in its Visual Studies Program. Chris Killip has given this set of exhibition prints to the Laing in honour of the shipyard workers of Tyneside.

Killip was fascinated by the way huge ships and industrial cranes provided a backdrop to everyday life in Wallsend and South Shields. The ship Tyne Pride, which he photographed in 1975, was the biggest ship ever built on the river, but also one of the last. “Even then I had a sense that all this was not going to last,” he says, “though I had no idea how soon it would all be gone.” In the photograph Wallsend Housing Looking East (1975), Tyne Pride looms over children as a group of young girls play with chalk at the end of Gerald Street. Only two years later, Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977) shows the same street demolished, both children and Tyne Pride a ghost of the past, dramatic evidence of the industry’s decline. ‘DON’T VOTE. PREPARE FOR REVOLUTION’ the spray-painted graffiti remains on the few brick walls that remain standing.

Killip’s typical black and white gritty style helps to evoke a sense of raw and poignant energy, accentuating the drama of the scenes in which the images depict.

Through a monochrome lens Killip draws the viewer into the subject’s emotional state, forcing them, in a way, to pause and absorb the dramatic narrative. “I am the photographer of the de-industrial revolution in England. I didn’t set out to be this. It’s what happened during the time I was photographing.” This is real life England, Killip stresses, exposed to its very core of authenticity. It is what it is, take it or leave it, there are no smoke or mirrors.

However, all is not bleak. Other photographs capture the energy of the mid-1970s, with ships under construction and shipyard workers streaming out of the gates at the End of Shift.

If there’s one image that summarises the sheer colossal scale of the ship, Tyne Pride at the end of the street is it. Children stand in their doorway, dwarfed by the ship’s hull. This is England’s lifeblood; an industry powered by years of arduous labour, dedication and persistence, manifesting itself in a landscape of steel.

Shipyard workers looking at the Everett F Wells depicts the last super-tanker built on the Tyne, capable of carrying cargo of 250,000 tonnes. This is Killip’s specialism; a sharp eye for composition and lighting, illuminating the subject matter to the heart of the story.

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