If you’ve read my last entry – and if you haven’t, then please do – you’ll know that I recently decamped from the provinces to dear old Mother London for a week’s worth of culture and immersion in the photographic arts. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I discovered that one of my photographic heroes was exhibiting at Tate Britain.
Some years ago, when I returned to photography after a long break, one of the first books of pictures I picked up was an edition of Tim Page’s Nam – as the name suggests it’s a collection of Tim Page’s images of the Vietnam War. For various reasons Vietnam is often regarded as “the photojournalist’s war”. Keen to show the people back home what the war was all about, the US military offered accredited journalists unlimited access, simulated rank and a general lack of censorship. The resulting photographs are among the most impactful and horrific images of warfare that have ever been produced, and their effect on American public opinion is often cited as a major reason for America loosing the war. As a result, wars fought since have generally featured some form of censorship, and the press tend to have been embedded within military units where more control can be placed on what’s seen by whom.
And so I discovered, in addition to Tim Page, a whole raft of photographer’s who’d covered that particular war. Sean Flynn, the son of actor Errol Flynn, missing presumed dead in Cambodia in 1970. Larry Burrows, deceased in 1971. And, during the French campaign in what was then called Indo-China, Robert Capa – the most famous combat photographer of his day, if not of all time – perished while reporting on his third war. And finally, amongst the best known war photographer’s – Don McCullin.
Even if you don’t know the name, if you’ve got even a passing interest in photography or history you will have seen one of his images. He’s best known for his reportage of the Vietnam War, but also covered conflicts in the Congo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Israel and the Middle East. He has covered famine in Biafra, social deprivation in London and the North of England.
Despite the fame it has brought him, McCullin has publicly disowned the title of War Photographer. He has been very open about the psychological trauma associated with recording these images – given that he’s probably seen more war-zones than most professional soldiers that’s hardly surprising. However, it will be for his combat photography that he’s remembered – the images of people in extremis carry an emotive power that’s undeniable. But the Tate Britain exhibition is notable for showing the full breadth of his work.
It’s also notable for its sheer scale – the images start with his first published image in 1958 and continue in an unbroken succession up to his photography for Syria in 2017. All of the work you’ve heard of – war, strife, conflict etc – was on display, but what really interested me was the stuff I hadn’t seen.
Some of that was in the first room after coming through the door, with a display of images covering the construction of the Berlin wall. And while all of the classic images were present, there were almost as many that I’d never seen before. It took a solid two hours to make my way around it. That includes the time with my nose pressed against the glass of the case in the middle of one of the larger rooms – the one containing his Vietnam era combat helmet, press cards, passports and the Nikon SLR which famously stopped a bullet while McCullen was covering the war in Laos.
I was struck by the sheer amount of work on view. Quite apart from the conflict images, there was decades worth of documentary images, walls of truly beautiful landscape work and some really interesting still-lives. The only small problem was that I could have spent a few days looking at all of this, and I only had one morning.
McCullin is also the subject of the recent BBC4 documentary Looking For England, which I found highly relevant to the exhibition for two major reasons. Firstly because it examines McCullen’s social documentary work within his own country, as opposed to his conflict photography in foreign parts. Secondly because it shows his darkroom practice – McCullin made every print on display. And, if I’m being honest, I feel I can far better appreciate the art of making a photographic print from having spent many happy afternoons slaving over an enlarger doing it myself.
And lastly, the influences of all this were present outside of the exhibition. Looking For England could be taken as a “how to” guide – that’s certainly how I took it. I’m not sure I gave that any particular thought until it was mentioned by one of the readers of my last post. To be fair I could see the point. While photographing the Extinction Rebellion protests I was struck by the need to talk to these people as well as photograph them. In this context that’s not difficult – people who’re protesting or trying to make a point are unlikely to mind being asked to elaborate on what they’re up to. The peripheral characters – legal observers, police officers and so on – are also worth querying. It gave a depth to the work which I’d have missed otherwise.
There’s an old saying about meeting your heroes. But studying their life’s work turns out to be quite rewarding.
Tate Britain’s Don McCullin exhibition continues until May 6th 2019.