Telling a powerful story 1 – Don McCullin

 

Don McCullin – photo-journalist witnessing war, poverty, and deprivation 

“Still photographs have a strong affinity with the way we remember.  The vibrations of a still photograph can be intense, and can last forever …. the ripples go out….  The disenchantment with the Vietnam War was powerfully reinforced by …. photographers such as Don McCullin.” 

Sir Harold Evans, Editor of the Sunday Times, 1967-83, speaking in the film McCullin [2013] –  see trailer  

A Turkish wife learns of her husband’s death, Cyprus, 1964

In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Sir Don McCullin produced the greatest photojournalism of his age for The Sunday Times Magazine.  From Vietnam to the Middle East, he gave us images of war of unequalled power. And he wandered Britain nudging consciences with his pictures of poverty and deprivation.  No new photographer can claim not to have been influenced by McCullin.

The Times 27 Jan 2019 

I wasn’t going to include Don McCullin again – a sign, perhaps, of how horrendous the scenes he depicts are, but also maybe how his imagery is almost taken for granted now. But I changed my mind after seeing the film McCullin [2013] about his war photography [see a short trailer here].  I found it on Amazon Prime, and it is absolutely harrowing to watch … but it is book-ended with countryside scenes around his home in Somerset [see previous post], which hint at the more redemptive aspects of his personal story.  The film has been described as:

A revealing documentary of his life and work and what effect such intimate images can have on one’s life.  A brilliant documentary for those interested in history, humanity and photography

To many, Don McCullin is the greatest living war photographer, often cited as an inspiration for today’s photojournalists.  For the first time, McCullin speaks candidly about his three-decade career covering wars and humanitarian disasters on virtually every continent and the photographs that often defined historic moments.  From 1969 to 1984, he was the Sunday Times’ star photographer, where he covered stories from the civil war in Cyprus to the war in Vietnam, from the man-made famine in Biafra to the plight of the homeless in the London of the swinging sixties.  Exploring not only McCullin’s life and work, but how the ethos of journalism has changed throughout his career, the film is a commentary on the history of photojournalism told through the lens of one of its most acclaimed photographers.

From the imbd review of the film.

Also, in 2019 there was a major retrospective of McCullin’s work at Tate Britain, so there is plenty of online information and imagery to check out, for instance in these Guardian articles here and here.  I found that the only way I could really understand his work was to hear him talking about it, and, in addition to the film, there are quite a lot of recent short videos online.  Many of his most iconic photographs are on the National Galleries of Scotland website, where I sourced most of the images below.

Battle of Hue, Vietnam, 1968

A Turk sprints from the exposed doorway of an old cinema in Limassol, Cyprus, 1964. It was McCullin’s first foreign assignment for the Observer.

McCullin grew up in a very rough part of London with very little education, but became passionate about photography.  His first published photos were of the gangs he grew up among.  He became absolutely compelled to record the human experience of war situations around the world – indeed believed he was meant to do so (to the detriment of his family life).  He is quite open about how crazy he became in this pursuit, and that he questioned what he was doing all the time – never sure that it would make any difference. He describes himself as being “on the side of humanity,” rather than having war itself as his subject, and tragically war has of course not stopped as a result.  However, his sensitivity, empathy, responsiveness and instinct resulted in images that can never be forgotten.

He has described how some moments he witnessed were evocative of the painter Goya. His editor at the Sunday Times, Sir Harold Evans, said of such images:

That moment is so classic – it is one of the decisive moments in photography, because it combines the news moment with the compositional elements, which make the photographs in themselves.  A second or two later would have made a difference.

And McCullin seemed to have had exactly the intuition and sense of composition that captured such moments over and over.  The power of his photographs now seems to be in revealing the inhumanity of war anywhere and everywhere, rather than particular events. However, after the gruesome intimacy of images such as the ones he made in the Vietnam, the role of war photographers has become much more circumscribed, and his pictures belong to a very particular period in photography.

Now you’re totally controlled.  You’re never going to be allowed to take the kind of photographs I did in Vietnam.  The whole rule-book has been re-written.

[Quote from the film]

  *  *  *

In addition to his war photography, McCullin had many more assignments for the Sunday Times, recording everyday British life, especially but not exclusively in poverty-stricken areas.  These were regularly published in the colour magazine supplement of the newspaper, which is perhaps why for a certain generation they are so memorable.

Early shift, West Hartlepool steelworks, County Durham, 1963.

On the pier at Eastbourne in the 1970s.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1970.

 

But the sheer amount of death and degradation McCullin witnessed eventually took its toll on him, and, as the previous post describes, he turned to landscape photography for his salvation.

I took a great interest in English landscape photography because I’d seen so much tragedy and war – so much misery and pain and suffering – it began to damage me.  If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be a really straightforward, normal human being, I would be a monster … I’d seen too much, and then I needed to release this pain and this tension that was building in me.

I started doing my landscapes and people started saying nice things about them.  They used to often say at the same time, why are they so dark?  The simple reason is because I’m dark, war made me a dark person….  War gave me something, but it took something away from me.  Luckily it didn’t take my life away.

From Seeking the Light, a short film made for Canon [2015] in which McCullin aged 77 makes the switch from his ‘cumbersome, old’ camera to a modern digital one … and is delighted by its capabilities.

 

“Photography is the truth, if it’s being handled by a truthful person”

[Don McCullin, quote from the film]

 

 

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