What sort of place is Skinningrove, a fishing village of fewer than 500 people on the coast of northern Yorkshire? When a woman there caught an 11-foot-long oarfish, a species not previously found off the coast of England, London’s Natural History Museum said it would have been interested in adding the fish to its collection of taxidermy — “would have been” because, the Times of London reported, the locals had already “cut [it] up into steaks.”
That was in 2003. Twenty years earlier, Chris Killip was in the middle of three years of photographing the village and its residents. Thirty-nine pictures from that project make up “Chris Killip: Skinningrove 1982-84.” It runs at Howard Yezerski Gallery through June 4.
The distance from the museum to Skinningrove is 265 miles. That’s slightly more than between Boston and Bangor. Yet in most respects other than mileage, Skinningrove could be a million miles from London. What we see is an amalgam of abandonment and rootedness — or as Killip puts it in an accompanying video, “mess” and “grandeur.” There’s something absolutely English about the combination.
Looking at Killip’s black-and-white photographs, with the view they present of a set-apart, up-against-it place — picturesque it’s not — one can’t help but think of Brexit (now) or Margaret Thatcher (then). But that would do both Killip and the village a disservice. “Now then” is how people would greet one another in Skinningrove back then. Killip describes this as “a challenging substitute for the more usual ‘Hello.’ ” It might also be understood as an awareness of continuity: now’s adjacency to then being a wonderfully concise way of joining present to past.
Various details denote a specificity of time: a young man’s Mohawk, the punk LP he holds, the recurrence of motorcycles. We see nearly as many of them as we do dogs, and we see quite a few dogs. But the greater sense is of timelessness or, more accurately, endurance: work, acceptance, mortality as a matter of present no less than past or future. A wall label notes that four Skinningrove men, three of them in the photos, subsequently died at sea. A photograph of a boy in a boat — he’s 9, 10? — is almost as sad as its title: “Simon Coultas being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned.” Is endurance the same thing as nobility? These photographs won’t make you rethink endurance. They might well make you rethink nobility.
“Dawn” occurs in two other titles. They’re about work, not rosy-fingeredness. Dawn is when these men get up to go to sea. The sea is opportunity or challenge, not leisure-time activity or escape. A photograph called “Swimmers” and another of a boy named Brian Magor wearing swimming trunks at the beach look as much punitive as recreational. In all these photographs, you feel the north-ness of the North Sea.
To go with a sense of being alongside or athwart time, there’s an awareness of being very specifically located in space, a sense of place all the more powerful for how casually Killip conveys it.
There’s nothing showy about these pictures. Framing and composition just seem to occur — which is, of course, the highest compliment one can pay a photographer. A photograph like “Crabs and People” requires a second look, or even a third, to realize how much is going on in it: the people, the dogs, the interplay of car and pram and cart, of ocean and rock.
Ocean and rock is the defining reality of the place. There was an iron mine nearby, then an ironworks, and steelworks. The workers fished part time. Visiting in 2010, Killip noted that only one fishing boat remained in operation.
The pictures are unframed, 20 inches by 24 inches, or vice versa. It’s a good size: giving the people and the landscape their due without taking them out of proportion. Killip, an outsider, had to work to get the villagers’ trust. His outsider status gives him perspective, yet it’s informed by a knowledgeable sympathy. He grew up in a fishing village on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea. Two years ago, he retired from Harvard, having taught there for a quarter century.
There are a few images of more traditional by-the-sea beauty. “The beach and smoke” and “The breakwater, Summer ” are (very) distant kin to Turners — assuming Turner restricted himself to unobtrusive tonalities of gray. The grayness is inescapable as well as fitting: The watery light Killip had to work with is at once soft and somber.
Beauty is a tricky, even perplexing thing. It can leave behind prettiness and attractiveness to reach places far more challenging visually — or emotionally — or morally — than that which is pleasing or soothing. In that sense, these seemingly reserved, even dour photographs are deeply, even profoundly beautiful.
CHRIS KILLIP: Skinningrove 1982-84
At Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through June 4. 617-262-0550, www.howardyezerski.comMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.