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Chris Killip’s photos capture the freedom of punk in 80s north east England

In 1985, Chris Killip documented the frenetic energy of Gateshead music venue, The Station.

“At the time, I didn’t realise how important this place was to the people. I do now. It was terribly important because it was part of their identity. This was the place they could be themselves and nobody could tell them what to do,” reflects photographer Chris Killip, on the young people who found sanctuary, and strength, within Gateshead’s music venue, The Station.

All shot in black and white, The Station – a book and exhibition which was scheduled to open at Martin Parr’s Foundation at Paintworks Bristol BS4 this week, but will be rescheduled to the summer – is a tribute to time and togetherness. The project was completed between March and October in 1985, but its catalyst for publication came more recently when Killip’s son rediscovered some of his father’s earlier punk images. Most are unseen, having remained in storage until now.

With nothing but a bag of film, a camera that was good to go, some cigarettes – “I smoked then,” he recalls – and a “very powerful flash”, Killip would show up at The Station every Saturday night. “The first time I turned up unannounced and uninvited. It was euphoric in there,” he says. “I’d been photographing at nightlife venues around Newcastle, but The Station was different. It was isolated, an ex-social club turned nondescript building far removed from anything else. This was great for the people who went there because noise immediately didn’t matter. They’d painted everything black – ceilings, walls, furniture – so it was a kind of strange, dark space. It was a proper co-operation, ran by the people for its people”.

1980s Newcastle lived under the shadow of Thatcher’s rule and was the perfect storm for a youthquake – one that burnt with endurance and refused to be mitigated by oppressive moral codes. “There were a lot of problems in the north, especially in the north east,” says Killip of the place he lived for 15 years. “These kids were politically active and going to demos. We rarely spoke at The Station though. I just took their picture, but I’d seen some of them gathering at the miner’s protests and they’d seen me photographing there”, he explains.

These little glimpses into the dark hours where subcultures felt free from the systemic structures working to suffocate them, led to a series of images forming the basis of The Station:  “In the 80s, there were a lot of unemployed youth without qualifications in Newcastle. These kids were smart and politically-minded, but they were high and dry, too. That’s why the venue meant so much. They painted it, they produced it, they identified with it. Their music, their people in their space”.

Among the deafening punk music and pitch black room lit by only a single strobe, Killip worked independently “talking to no one really” and then “just leaving, often feeling exhausted”. Killip recalls the process: “It was a challenging environment from a photographic perspective because you couldn’t really see anything,” he laughs. “There was a single-stage light, so I used that and a powerful flash to guess how far away the subject was. There wasn’t any interaction between me and the people though”.

Although this approach feels far from collaborative, the images centre on community and collectivity: “Everything was thought about. Their hairstyles and outfits were meticulous. They had one outfit for most nights, this made it hard for me because it looks like the images are repetitive, like they’ve been taken in one night, but they haven’t. When these kids had established their look, they’d keep it because they didn’t have much money and also they didn’t want anyone else to steal it. They were all like paintings really”.

Concentrate on the images though, and Killip says you’ll spot slight nuances, differentiators of one night to the next. “There’s a sequence of a guy in the book and he’s repeated four times over. It’s like a cinematic thing, like four stills from a film but it’s from three different nights. His outfit is exactly the same but if you look closely, you’ll see subtle differences in his hairstyle”.

In a world where community is becoming increasingly difficult to keep close, Killip’s photographs are a reminder of the importance of the unique powers of people and place – and The Station embodies that.

The Station by Chris Killip is published by Steidl. The project will be exhibited at the Martin Parr Foundation. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the exhibition will be extended into summer 2020 – date currently TBC.


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