Photography isn’t about seeing, it’s about feeling. If I don’t have some kind of feeling for what I’m shooting, how can I expect the person who looks at it to feel anything?
If this is Don McCullin’s measure of a photograph, then his current show at Tate Britain shows that he has been successful. What effect this has had on his emotional wellbeing may be more difficult to judge. His work is direct and brilliant, documenting the last 50 years, globally and locally.
Born in Finsbury Park in North London in 1935, 15 minutes on the W7 bus from where we live, McCullin has been capturing humanity and inhumanity since he was at school. Whilst growing up in poverty, he secured an Arts scholarship. He served out his national service as a darkroom assistant and bought a cheap camera in Nairobi. His life was transformed after he started taking photographs of a gang in North London, the Guvnors, who had notoriously murdered a local policeman. Some work colleagues convinced him to approach the Observer newspaper with the photos of the Brylcreemed teddy boys in bombed out buildings and late night cafes.
His profile rose and he was employed by the Sunday Times as an overseas correspondent. It was his work for the Times that secured his reputation. He worked his way through the hell holes of the world, those areas where suffering, violence and misfortune prospered – Biafra and Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cyprus. The latter had a couple of shots that captured the unease of his role.
In the conflict between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish communities, he arrived at a house to find the floor swimming in blood. Three bodies – a father and his two sons – surrounded by a grieving mother and relatives. McCullin is there in the immediate aftermath of their deaths, trying to be an anonymous presence as possible but capturing unflinchingly what he was seeing. He didn’t have permission to be there and the results are heartbreaking. This is a constant theme – the tension between bearing witness and intrusion, of recording the worse that mankind can offer up.
This would be overwhelmingly depressing if it wasn’t for two of McCullin’s primary skills – extraordinary ability to work with light and gain an insight into his subject’s souls. This is evident in his work back in the UK, especially in the East End of his home city and the industrial north of England. Whether it is sheep being driven down the Caledonian Road to an abattoir or factories belching out smoke in Hartlepool, McCullin documents an England that passed. Sadly the poverty remains, a heartbreaking record of post-industrial Britain.
McCullin has mostly retired now but he keeps getting dragged back, most recently to Yemen. His work has moved on to stunning still life and landscape work. His gift for working with light has come to the fore. He finds what he does now a form of therapy, at least from his more harrowing overseas work.
Landscapes freed me from the emotional garbage that I was carrying. I could go out into the landscape and have no reason to have any moral thoughts.
He sees the souls and images he has shot as tattoos, a life long permanent mark on his body and his own soul, seared into his memory.
I was familiar with McCulllin’s war photography but his early work in London and his later work was new to me. It’s left me with much to explore. His autobiography appears to well reviewed and there was a recent documentary movie about his life.
If you are sharp and get to the Tate Britain before 9 May, you can combine McCullin’s retrospective with the stellar Van Gogh in Britain exhibition. Both are moving and touch the heart and mind in different ways. You won’t be disappointed.