This DON MCCULLIN retrospective is far from a relaxing trip to the Tate, but remains an essential one. Endlessly snaking round the special exhibitions floor, the retrospective lifts the curtain on one of the UK’s most revered photojournalists as he reflects his world back in over 200 black-and-white prints, each produced in his own darkroom. Spanning over 60 years of award-winning photography, that world is one of conflict, poverty, and being the ‘inconvenient witness’ to some of the most sobering periods, places and people of the 20th Century. Featuring exclusive prints of Liverpool and other northern landscapes paying the price of industry, the curation is a window into this uncomfortable world. But it’s a necessary world, and is just as much a journey into McCullin’s eyes as it is evidence of how his craft has become his loudest voice, and, more recently, something of a saviour.
“I didn’t choose photography – it seemed to choose me,” an 85-year-old Sir Donald McCullin CBE notes at the start of the exhibition. And perhaps it was nothing short of divine intervention that guided McCullin onto his righteous path in 1958, when a staged photograph of former schoolmates-turned-local-gang made him the most sought-after photographer overnight. Taken on a twin reflex Rolleicord after returning from military service in Africa, The Guvnors In Their Sunday Suits In Finsbury Park, London (1958) was not just a chance meeting with the foundations of gripping photography, but the beginning of his life, as the World Press Photo Of The Year recipient notes.
But as you progress with McCullin’s early photography taken in the smoky cafes of London’s East End, his work becomes less a result of careful choreography and more an innate affinity with irresistible storytelling. “I had an almost magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places,” he writes in one caption, referring to his British Press Award-winning trip to Berlin in 1961 when the Wall was just being built. An assignment he funded out of his own pocket, McCullin’s divided Berlin is a society juggling military occupation with the routines of everyday life. Here are West Berliners at Checkpoint Charlie peering over the wall to spot former neighbours and colleagues; here the glares of children as machines of war become one with their street playground.
It is this powerlessness which runs central throughout the retrospective. The true cost of having that magnetic pull to extraordinary places was that it lured McCullin to some of his darkest assignments, most notably presenting faraway wars to audiences back home in weekend supplements. That McCullin is regarded by many as the UK’s greatest living war photographer – a label which sits uncomfortably with him – becomes apparent through his honest depiction of conflicts and humanitarian crises, from the Congo to Cyprus, Beirut to Vietnam. It was here, during the Tet Offensive – a campaign which soured America’s attitudes to the Vietnam War – where McCullin met his Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue (1968). “I kind of dropped down on my knees and took five frames with my 35mm camera of this soldier,” McCullin writes. “He never blinked an eye. His eyes were completely fixed on one place.” A chilling visualisation of PTSD before it was widely understood, the image of the 5th Battalion Marine is one of McCullin’s most enduring explorations into the futility of war.
That futility would again punch through McCullin’s coverage of Biafra’s deadly struggle for independence from Nigeria – a chapter which left a devastating void after my two-hour visit. As victims of food blockades and human rights abuses, swathes of Biafrans suffered with starvation and severe deprivation. Sitting dignified as her child struggles for breastmilk, the Starving Twenty-Four-Year-Old Mother with Child, Biafra (1968) is a desperate plea to those standing before the print. Another is Biafra (1969), an image of a malnourished nine-year-old albino boy, living in a “position beyond description” as McCullin notes. So many of these images truly are beyond description. At every turn, the retrospective reveals that those who pay the most devastating price of war are so often those with the very least.
But McCullin is just as suited to exposing the social wars taking place within our own communities as he is on state-sponsored atrocities abroad. His prints of cities across northern England during the 1960s and 1970s reveal wars fought not with bullets and bombs, but with the social decays that followed industrial decline. Especially striking are his 14 prints of Liverpool, revealing a city facing the harsh consequences of both its shrinking port industry and its battle with the slum clearance programme in Toxteth – the result of which left a landscape not unlike the ruins of Berlin. So too are his prints on the chimney skylines and crowded homes of Bradford, each one unravelling the various faces of poverty. “I don’t pull my punches when I photograph poverty,” he noted in Bido Lito!’s October issue. “Mainly because I understand it.” Poverty, for McCullin, was a childhood constant growing up in London, and so there’s sincerity in offering a voice both to his subjects and to his own lived experiences through the prints.
“What I hoped I had captured in my pictures,” McCullin writes in the gallery’s introduction text, “was an enduring image that would imprint itself on the world’s memory”. McCullin is still obsessed with making prints, but they’re not of war-torn places and displaced people. Allowing us to contemplate the difficult contents of the retrospective, the final section is a reconciliation of human devastation with the natural world. Serving as an antidote to the tormenting memories of war and of being that inconvenient witness to history throughout much of his career, these healing prints of Somerset’s countryside illustrate a photographer turning something of a page.
Don McCullin doesn’t want to be remembered as a war photographer, preferring instead to leave a legacy of bringing landscapes closer to our eyes. Leaving the gallery, these final images leave me with the conclusion that, though McCullin may never be able to shake his reputation for capturing the world at its ugliest, he will no doubt be remembered for helping us appreciate it at its most beautiful.