At a moment when representation of the working class seems largely to have vanished from the political agenda, it comes as something of a shock to discover a serious cultural project, extending over forty years, where this question is central. Born on the Isle of Man in 1946, Chris Killip has spent much of his career photographing the human and social consequences of de-industrialization in the Northeast of England. He made his name with the exhibition Another Country in 1985, followed in 1988 by his best-known book, In Flagrante; the latter, which offered one of the hardest visual critiques of Thatcherism made during those years, won him the Cartier-Bresson prize, and indirectly helped secure him a professorship at Harvard, where he has been teaching since 1991.

A retrospective of Killip’s work held in Essen’s Museum Folkwang in spring 2012 displayed a substantial selection of the thousands of photographs he took between 1968 and 2004. It was while mining this image-archive to prepare for the exhibition that Killip devised the photographic essay published as Seacoal in 2011, which re-defines the idea of the ‘collection’, pushing it closer to a new genre in which the configuration of the pictures within the book constitutes an essay in its own right. Austere, unfashionably black-and-white, Seacoal looks at first sight like a straightforward instance of what used to be called documentary photography. But the images Killip offers are neither a record nor a document. They are both less and more; less, because they are not as evidential as might at first be thought; more, because instead of an ethnographic report, the book is a gathering of portraits. It would not be unreasonable, in fact, to call it a last collective portrait of the working class.

Killip had been drawn to the Northeast of England after making the decision, aged twenty-three, to become a full-time photographer. He never attended art school and had no formal education beyond the age of 16. After a spell as a photographer’s assistant in London in the late 1960s, he spent a couple of years back on the Isle of Man, taking pictures which would eventually appear in the small book Isle of Man: A Book about the Manx in 1980. The main influence here was clearly the work of Paul Strand, in books like the 1954 Tir a’Mhurain on the Outer Hebrides. Many of Killip’s Manx images are extraordinary portraits, in which familiarity with the sitter is crucial to the effect: in Killip’s words, the pictures owe their quality to the fact that ‘I could be named and placed by the people I photographed because of my grandmother, or because of my father’. His skills in portraiture would subsequently be put to good effect on numerous covers for the London Review of Books in the 1980s, and in Pirelli Work, his 2006 series of portraits of shop-floor workers at the Pirelli tyre plant in Burton.

Killip returned to mainland Britain in 1973, at a moment when the postwar social-democratic project was just starting to crumble—the subject of bitter struggles between the Heath government and the mineworkers and engineers; then came the imf and inflationary crises of 1976. Particularly in the North, de-industrialization was already in full swing. It was already a much harder world than Killip had found in the Isle of Man, and there is a sense in the photographs of the 1970s of shock at just how much the industrial fabric of the North was breaking down. Based in Newcastle from 1975, Killip was denied permission to photograph in the Swan Hunter shipyards on Tyneside, and instead developed a method based on gradual immersion in the environments that formed his subject matter. As he began to focus more on the consequences of the disappearance of work, his attention moved from surveying what was occurring to achieving the kinds of intimacy and depth impossible in the wider picture. He spent a considerable amount of time in working-class communities such as Skinningrove in North Yorkshire in the early 1980s, where the closure of the iron and steel plant ended all possibilities of local employment.

Most extraordinary of all, however, was the small community of travellers, ex-miners and others at Lynemouth Beach in Northumberland who, for a few years, eked out the dole by harvesting coal as it washed in on the tides. Here is Killip’s account of his initial encounter with the place:

When I first saw the beach in January 1976 I recognized the industry above it but nothing else I was seeing. The beach beneath me was full of activity with horses and carts backed into the sea. Men were standing in the sea next to the carts, using small wire nets attached to poles to fish out the coal from the water beneath them. The place confounded time; here the Middle Ages and the twentieth century intertwined.

Lynemouth beach, twenty miles north of Newcastle, lies at the northern end of what used to be the Northumberland and Durham coalfield, at the point where the seams run out under the North Sea. Coal had broken away from underwater seams and had been collected along local beaches for centuries. But in the 1970s Ellington colliery—one of the largest deep-coal mines in the area—began to tip the mixed waste which it was no longer economical to sort directly into the sea. Wave action gradually separated rock from coal, and since coal floats, some was carried back to the beach by tides and storms. For a few years, sufficient coal was being washed ashore for it to be just possible to scratch a living from harvesting it.