The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite places to visit in London. It is a gallery of humanity, of how we see ourselves and understand each other. If you have never been to the Portrait Gallery, you may think of it as a stuffy place that shows paintings commissioned by stuffy people to show off their status. I know I did. But The Portrait Gallery is filled with images of people from all walks of life. When done well, these portraits reveal inner lives, truths, and sensibilities. Whenever I come to London, it is top on my list of places to go.
So I was broken-hearted to learn that it is closed for renovation until June 2023. However, I resolved that this was a good excuse to discover something new.
The Photographer’s Gallery is not far from The Portrait Gallery. I’m passionate about photography, especially black and white. My father was a photographer in the 1950s and I have spent much of the last two years pouring over his portraits of people and places in New York. The protagonist in my next book, Focus. Click. Wind, is an aspiring photographer. Yet I have never gone to The Photographer’s Gallery in London.
When I turned down Ramillies street, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of people, queuing. Were there really that many people lined up to go to photography exhibits? I cursed myself for not buying a ticket online and began to turn away. But I found it hard to believe that so many people had come out to see “Chris Killip: A Retrospective.” So I ventured on a bit further and saw the sign for the gallery with no line up out front.
Inside, it was calm. People were enjoying Sunday morning coffee and cakes. “What’s going on out there?” I asked as I bought my ticket. “Auditions,” a young man smiled. I thought briefly about how years ago I would have eagerly joined that line up. And I thought about how much happier I was to be doing what I was doing.
I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the Manx photographer Chris Killip (1946 – 2020.) He is known as the chronicler of the “English De-industrial Revolution,” and his photographs that show the stories of those who, in his words, had history “done to them” –– the men, women and children who lived in North Yorkshire, Northumbria, Tyneside and other harsh rural landscapes in the 1970s and 80s.
“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.”Chris Killip
Killip spent years with people he photographed, and their trust in him is evidenced by the honesty of these pictures. They allowed him to access inner truths. These are profoundly moving portraits of isolated communities devastated by change.
I came away from the exhibit changed and deeply grateful for the ease and good fortune of my life. And for the serendipity that led me to discover a new Portrait Gallery.