Bibliokleptomania, or: How I learned to love Chris Killip by Daniel Boetker-Smith

Bibliokleptomania, or: How I learned to love Chris Killip by Daniel Boetker-Smith

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

Nearly two decades ago my photobook obsession reached such levels of intensity that I stole a book - a book that I consider to be the greatest photobook ever published: Chris Killip’s In Flagrante (a black and white documentary photobook published by Secker & Warburg, London in 1988). I didn’t steal the book from a shop, or from a friend, but from a University library. There were two copies on the shelf, and they had been in the library collection for a number of years. I borrowed one and never returned it. According to the stamp on the inside cover, it had been borrowed only once before (a travesty!). I viewed my criminal act as one that Killip himself would condone, even encourage! The theft seemed, at the time, justified by the sense that I was liberating one of the copies to be relocated to a place where it would be viewed, shared, and loved – my house.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

Prior to the crime, my premeditation went so far as researching book theft and found solace in Alberto Manguel’s History of Reading (1996) where he, thankfully, reassured me that stealing a book is not a crime ‘if you steal it from a library’ – and only becomes so when you steal it from a place where it is ‘sold’. Despite Manguel’s robust support, my guilt remains to this day and I hope that through writing this article I can convince you why In Flagrante is the greatest photobook ever made, and why I had no choice to do what I did.

Firstly, some photobook background - in the last decade, with the emergence of cheaper and more accessible forms of photobook production and printing, there has been a surge of interest amongst artists and photographers in the photobook as an art form and an alternative mode of exhibition and dissemination. I receive information about newly established photobook festivals or competitions on a weekly basis.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

‘The photobook’ is a vague classification; it can be defined only through its physical qualities and processes, which can vary wildly from the classic hardback full-colour offset variety to the handmade, hand stitched, soft bound set of silver gelatin prints – and everything in between.

The magnificent botanical studies of Anna Atkins, Photographs of British Algae (1843), counts as one of the first photobooks ever made, and though decidedly scientific it is certainly a precursor to the contemporary documentary approaches of Taryn Simon, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Christina Meindertsma and others.

The publication of Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844-46), as a series of six fascicles, has meant that since its invention photography has been inextricably connected to the book as much as to the gallery. Talbot’s ‘plates’ in his second book Sun Pictures in Scotland (1845) were produced with the first negative-positive photographic process, which allowed the photographer to make from each negative a potentially infinite number of prints on paper that could be bound or hand glued onto the pages of books and albums. Given this history, I wonder if the legitimate home of photography is actually the book, from where it moved to be accepted later into museums and galleries as prints on a wall?

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

More specifically, documentary photography and the photobook have been connected since the early 20th Century - Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939) being the most notable early example. But not until Killip’s In Flagrante in 1988 was a photobook instrumental in offering a new trajectory for documentary photography that had a real impact on how it is actually practised. Killip’s In Flagrante changed documentary photography and equally, changed photobooks.

Here’s why: Killip’s significance lies in his ability to blend a conceptual approach to image-making and narrative with the traditional aesthetics of black-and-white documentary practices. With the creation of his seminal In Flagrante Killip achieved something new by using the photobook as both a means of presentation of an important story and in the same images cause a disruption or critique of documentary photography.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

In Flagrante is the epitome of 1980s black and white, socially-engaged documentary photography, but on closer inspection it presents the reader with a series of cul-de-sacs, half-told stories and digressions that eventually lead only back to the first image. We finish the book having travelled a full circle, and having had described to us a whole world while being told little about the subjects or places on display.

Killip’s book fulfils all the criteria of a traditional photo-documentary piece - it is entirely black-and-white in an era of colour, it pictures the poor and the destitute, and its ‘message’ is framed in a large, expensive hard-back book. The era that is represented in the book, 1977 to 1985, in the North-East of England was a period of intense social upheaval and revolt. Appearing sporadically in the book amongst black-and-white photographs of shipyards miners, coal heaps, protests, police lines, and council houses, there are beguiling, divergent and obtuse images of little boys caressing frogs, ruins of castles, a man painting a seascape on a pebbled-beach, an old woman at a bus-stop, lonesome figures sitting on street corners. These latter quiet images are like allegories calling up alternate worlds within the narrative. Killip says about the work:

"This is a subjective book about my time in England. I take what isn’t mine and I covet other peoples lives. The photographs can tell you more about me than about what they describe.This book is a fiction about metaphor."

Killip’s actively works to interrupt the flow of the book and subvert the notion of authenticity or objectivity presupposed in other photobooks of this ilk.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

On the 7th of July 2004 in his role as Curator of the Rencontres of Photographie (the annual summer photo festival in Arles, France) Martin Parr acknowledged Chris Killip, along with British photographer Tony Ray-Jones, as one of his main influences. Killip, whose work was included in the festival’s programme, ‘taught us’ Parr said, ‘that compelling photographs have at their heart a visual ambiguity’.

Indeed, it is measure of how ahead of its time and progressive Killip’s work was that his book was not lauded or acclaimed for a number of years following its publication. So subtle was In Flagrante’s message and Killip’s undoing of the genre of the documentary photobook that he didn’t publish a book again for 15 years, and instead took up a teaching post at Harvard (where he has remained since). Only in 2012 was he nominated for the preeminent Deutsche-Borse Prize at the Photographers Gallery in London alongside the very practitioners whose work he pre-empted and forged a path for - Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Mishka Henner, and Cristina de Middel, all of whom now lead by example having produced some of the most unique and wonderfully obtuse photobooks in the world.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

There is generally a dearth of histories of photography paying tribute to the photobook as a significant progressor of the medium. Killip’s work sparked a renewed interest and in the last decade or so artists, collectors, curators and scholars are now responding to the photobook in studies that explore its cultural and intellectual importance; they are however still fairly rare.

Carol Armstrong’s analysis of the nineteenth-century British Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1834-1875 (1998) is perhaps the first scholarly work that provided a detailed demonstration of the role photobooks play in the histories of photography. Among the books and exhibitions to have taken up the argument are - Published, Exhibited: Photography from the Book to the Museum at the National Museum of Art, Cataluna (2005); Few are Chosen: Street Photography and the Book, 1936-66 at the New York Metropolitan Museum; and lastly The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, an exhibition held at the ICP (International Centre of Photography) in New York (June-September 2005) which directly picked up where Armstrong’s study left off.

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s two volume The Photobook: A History published in 2004 and 2006 (with a third volume due later this year) is one of the few studies that deal with the photobook on its own terms. The importance of the work of Parr and Badger is their emphasis; they utilise two key editorial criteria, imposing some level of curatorial control on their two-volume opus. They argue for a book ‘containing photographs’ to be considered a photobook, but the book cannot simply be a collection of images, it must demonstrate intention and coherence in design. Parr and Badger argue that it must have a particular subject – a specific theme, and what makes the photobook more or less successful is how the images work together – ‘the sum, by definition, is greater than the part’ they say. Parr and Badger celebrate the images themselves as the prime communicator (as opposed to accompanying text).

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988

Some perfect examples championing the image as text that come to mind are contemporary photobooks (mostly documentary) by artists such as Ron Jude, Rinko Kawauchi, Christian Patterson, Lieko Shiga, Mishka Henner, Cristina de Middel, Paul Graham, J Carrier, Jem Southam, Maarten Lange, Torbjorn Rodland, Alec Soth, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, and Vanessa Winship.

In Flagrante was, I believe, a starting point for what has become a new and dynamic approach to photography, one that can only be manifested through the form of the photobook. It could be argued that an entirely new genre of photography has emerged with Killip as its, somewhat inadvertent, founder.

Those of you wanting to make your own photobook but are yet unsure of how to proceed need to know only one thing – as Killip says, a photobook is a ‘fiction about metaphor’.

p.s. Stealing books is wrong

Chris Killip, In Flagrante, Secker & Warburg, 1988


Daniel Boetker-Smith is based in Melbourne.

His photographic work has been nominated for the Josephine Ulrick Photo Prize, the Centre for Contemporary Photography’s Documentary Photography Award, the Bowness Photography Prize (MGA), and the Substation Contemporary Art Prize.

Daniel is the founder of the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive; a not-for-profit organisation that provides a forum for photobooks from the region to be donated, seen, shared and experienced. The archive is regularly invited to photo festivals internationally to showcase its unique and diverse range of photobooks. Daniel recently curated a show (with Katrin Koenning) of Australian and New Zealand documentary photography for the Obscura Photo Festival in Malaysia; and was invited to be a jury member for the 2013 Photobook Award at the Kassel International Photobook Festival, Germany, alongside Gerry Badger, Takashi Homma, Jacqueline Hassink, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, and Markus Schaden.

Daniel has taught at Universities in the UK and Australia for the past 10 years, and was recently appointed Coordinator of the Bachelor of Photography course at Photography Studies College, Melbourne.

The Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive will launch its new space (supported by the photo-magazine Unless You Will) and will be open to the public on the 21st Feb 2014. The space is located on the corner of Kerr and Gore St in Fitzroy, Melbourne (next to Strange Neighbour). The Archive is also taking part in the NGV’s landmark Melbourne Now exhibition, and will be taking over the community hall at NGV International for a day of photobook activities on the 7th  March.

www.photobookarchive.com