Friday, April 20, 2007

Chris Killip's Pirelli Work

When Chris Killip introduced us to his subjects before, it was in two books: The Isle of Man and In Flagrante. Both of these works described aspects of the working class in England. In The Isle of Man, his subjects come across with an aura of slight romanticism similar to what Paul Strand lent to some of his subjects. Killip seems to be giving us something to hold onto of a passing time and community.

For the romanticism of Isle of Man, In Flagrante is devoid of the romantic. Killip shows us the effects of people ignored by government. Where in Isle of Man, his characters inhabit an almost idyllic 19th century farm life, the characters in In Flagrante are hardened and unemployed. This is Thatcher’s England of over four million jobless. Killip is relentless in showing us people passing time and all the while, you feel the tension of their plight.

Where appropriately there isn’t a single picture of someone "at work" in In Flagrante, Chris Killip’s new book Pirelli Work is all work. If Pirelli Work is to serve as a continuation of where In Flagrante left off, the economic situation has changed for our cast of characters. They have gone off the dole and are now gainfully employed.

Originally commissioned in 1989 by the Pirelli Tire Company (UK) to produce a series of photographs of their workforce, Killip spent approximately six months photographing freely in the factory. Working with an assistant and artificial lighting, Killip photographed the workers unposed among their machines. Unlike the Isle of Man images of work, these are photographs are far from romantic. The work is hard and dirty but to the workers it is necessary and it is dignified.

The factory floor in which they work is a dark and chaotic mash of dangerous looking machinery but the heads and hands that appear amongst the moving parts are the masters. One doesn’t feel vulnerable when looking at these images like those of Lee Friedlander’s factory photographs. In Friedlander’s pictures, the machines cause injury and fear during their operation. Here the workers operate them with confidence and power.

There is an oppressive tone to the book though, the dark surroundings of the factory floor weigh heavily on the images. It seems that if it weren’t for Killip’s artificial light, these workers would be toiling in pitch darkness. I found myself wishing for a worker to take a smoke break so we could experience sunlight even for a brief moment. Instead, we continue on working. It is a factory run 24 hours a day after all.

The male workforce (there is only one woman present) does not seem temporary or transitional. One could imagine that these men will continue to make tires in this same factory until retirement. Perhaps what gives me this sense is that there is only one image of a man who seems to be under thirty, the rest are older. They are of the age where they remember the mass unemployment of the eighties and they know the importance of continually working and getting a paycheck.

The last image in the series is of an office meeting (Plant managers? Company owners?) taken through the office’s windows. Essentially it is shot the way the workers on the floor would see the managerial staff. Separate from their world. The difference is, the men in the meeting don’t seem to be doing anything. They actually look a bit foolish in their aquarium. That is something that can’t be said of those on the plant floor. Perhaps I’m reading a political statement where one isn’t meant but with the anger that streamed from In Flagrante, I can’t imagine that all is well here.

At the end of the book is an essay by Clive Dilnot in which he writes about Killip’s approach to to the project, work itself, the politics of photography and photographing work. He really seems to cover the bases in this essay but I find it a very difficult read. I’ve read it three or four times over and have trouble at points bending my mind around his words. Perhaps it is a matter of writing style or most probably my education, regardless, for me it is the photographs that are important and they speak for themselves.

Book Available Here