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photo-eye Book Reviews: Seacoal

Seacoal, Photographs by Chris Killip.
Published by Steidl, 2011.
Reviewed by Colin Pantall
Chris Killip Seacoal
Photographs by Chris Killip
Steidl, 2011. Hardbound. 112 pp., 116 tritone illustrations, 10-1/2x9".

It's not just the pictures in Chris Killip's Seacoal that are poignant. The backstory in how he came to make the book is fantastic too; a case study in documentary photography chickens coming home to roost in a good way, an example of good documentary practice generating its own karma. The year was 1976 and Killip was down on the beach at Lynemouth in the northeast of England, the kind of place where the wind whips in direct from Siberia and grim doesn't even begin to describe the Get Carter landscape. As he stood there, he beheld a scene from the Middle Ages; horses and carts backed up to the seashore to be loaded with coal pulled directly from the sea. Killip approached the beach but was charged by the coal collectors' horses. Killip, they believed, was a spy for the DHSS, the British department in charge of handing out unemployment benefits many of the men claimed while also collecting coal.

Seacoal, by Chris Killip. Published by Steidl, 2011.

Killip left but returned two years later. Again he was forced off the beach. Another two years passed and again the same thing happened. Killip headed for the pub where the coal collectors drank to ask them one final time. He walked through the door and told the men exactly why he wanted to photograph them. Still they refused; they didn't trust him and every time he returned to the beach they would run him down.

Seacoal, by Chris Killip. Published by Steidl, 2011.

Then a man called Brian walked into the bar. Brian remembered Killip taking his picture a few years before. Brian was Killip's way in. Killip stayed in a caravan on the beach for 14 months and made the Seacoal photographs that appear in this book.

Seacoal, by Chris Killip. Published by Steidl, 2011.

The pictures themselves are the classic Killip we know and love from In Flagrante. The landscape is bleak and raw, the people are quiet and natural, posed as though Killip and his large format setup aren't even there. And the faces are kind of hard and soft at the same time, not English with a feeling that the people they belong to are from another place, curious faces that ride ponies, hold rabbits and lug coal. No assumptions are made in Seacoal and that is a rare and precious thing. A rare and precious thing that makes for a rare and precious book.—Colin Pantall

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Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of’s favourites earlier this year.