Angus McDonald catches two exhibitions by Don McCullin in one afternoon, and emerges both exhausted and uplifted.
It might be an accident that the Tate Britain gallery and the Imperial War Museum are running Don McCullin exhibitions simultaneously, but it’s a happy accident, including the fact that there is overlapping material. What is revealed is not just the breadth of the photographer’s talent – his great versatility – but the depth, as the same career is interpreted in strikingly different ways.
It’s easy to take the Tate show the wrong way round. Turning left instead of right as you enter the room, you come to the most recent pictures first, and at first glance, you’re hooked. The eight landscapes, made between 1990 and 2009, some taken by the light of the moon, have an eerie perfection. There is a gloom about these wintry pictures, transcended by the glistening highlights: the metal of a country road, reflections on water. Most were taken around McCullin’s home in Somerset, but there is one from Hadrian’s Wall and another from the Somme.
The reflections and dark tones continue through a set of pictures of England’s blighted industrial landscape, taken during the 1960s and 70s. Three photographs, each featuring a pram, stand out: an elderly and impoverished woman carts a pile of belongings towards the camera and away from a grim set of chimneys; a young girl cheerfully pushes a load of laundry across the frame in front of heaps of derelict cars; and a well-dressed woman looks out of place, her expression a mixture of apprehension and bravado as she walks a pram across a background of factories and smokestacks. The viewer is not quite sure whether to feel desolated, optimistic or puzzled, and ends up experiencing all three.
There is no such ambiguity about the next set, pictures of homeless people in London’s East End between 1969 and 1980, the Dickensian poverty infecting both the people and their grimy surrounds. And the final – or first – series gives us what we are expecting: war. Or almost. The pictures were taken in Berlin in 1961 when McCullin, following his peerless nose for news, turned up and captured some of the first bricks of the Berlin Wall being laid. At the time, he says, he was little more than a “camera club photographer”, self-taught from a stack of old manuals he bought for £10.
Given what was to follow, the interesting thing is that these images are not actually of war. They allude to it rather than portray it. Shot in a city still raw with the scars of World War 2, they treat with the military, its paraphernalia and its postures, yet they are not of actual combat. But like the other images – the landscape of the Somme battlefields from 2000 or the homeless man lying motionless amid the filth of a Spitalfields street in 1969 – the spectre of death lurks just beneath the surface. The blank face of a tramp parallels the shell-shocked stare of a marine in Vietnam. “There’s a darkness in me. There’s no possible way that there isn’t a darkness in me from my past sightings and experiences,” says the photographer. The bewitching thing about these photographs is how that sensibility melds the subjects to their surrounds, as surely as McCullin himself can never escape his own reputation.
The show at the Imperial War Museum, far more ambitious and explicit, is titled Shaped by War and deals primarily with the genre the photographer is most famous for. Superbly designed and curated, the display moves from McCullin’s early breakthrough – photographing his friends, 1950s London gangsters in what looks like a bombed building – through his tours in Cyprus, Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, El Salvador and Iraq – a roll-call of horror.
While the Tate show allows space around the images, the War Museum exhibit feels more confined and deals, perhaps inevitably, in myth-making. We see the Rolleicord on which McCullin took the Berlin photographs, and his combat fatigues from Vietnam, although the photographer himself expresses distaste when he confronts them in the excellent half-hour video interview that runs as part of the show. “Do I need to talk about these boots?” he asks wearily. The Nikon F which stopped a bullet from an AK-47, quite possibly on its way to the photographer’s head, in Cambodia, gets a case to itself. We are told more than once that McCullin usually went on assignment with three cameras, two light meters and 30 rolls of film. But which lenses did he favour? Some of us would be interested to know.
Other displays give more of an insight into the man, such as his letter of protest at the Royal Navy’s refusal to give him a berth to cover the Falklands War – although the War Museum had commissioned him – or his resignation from the Sunday Times after it bumped his pictures of El Salvador in favour of the Falklands. “I cannot agree… to call San Salvador an ‘irrelevant arena’ when people are being tortured and dying,” he wrote in a letter which reflected not just his personal principles but also the fact that, after 20 years in the field, he was both battle-fatigued and finding himself excluded from conflict zones as a result of his own celebrity. It’s hardly surprising. His images of US marines in the midst of the Tet Offensive, of British soldiers charging past a shocked woman in a Belfast doorway, of starving civilians in Biafra, are so familiar that, in terms of cultural perception, they almost are the face of war.
In the video McCullin discusses the excitement of war photography – the feeling that this was what he was made to do – and the inevitable guilt that this brings. “When I got injured in these wars I thought it was good for me to bleed and hurt and have pain… it was good for me, it gave me a sense of balance.” Most excruciating is his description of battlefield conditions at Hue during the Tet offensive, when he shot 30 rolls of film in two weeks, but lost two, which he thinks about to this day.
The landscape photography became a kind of meditation for McCullin, a means of healing his pain and guilt after the crisis he underwent in the 1980s. Although some of them are on display here, they occupy a corner towards the end of the show, when the visitor is already visually exhausted by blood and suffering. Perhaps inevitably, McCullin’s post-war work forms a kind of afterthought, somewhat crammed and mismatched after the sumptuous treatment of his earlier career. Still, it rounds out the narrative – there are photographs of Greek ruins, of a beggar in India, of John Lennon clowning in a motorbike helmet, each of them as eyecatching as the other. My mind, though, kept returning to the landscapes at the Tate – to their darkness and to the uncharacteristic absence of human figures. An absence which gives way powerfully to the presence of the photographer himself.
One image seems to sum the man up. It is a still life, a bunch of dried flowers composed with three mementoes from Vietnam and Cambodia – a dragon and two dancing figures wielding weapons. Subtly lit, the subjects are posed on what looks like an antique side table with mottled wallpaper in the background. The combination of restless tension with stillness, of the menacing and the exotic with the reassurance of an English country house, seem to summarise what Don McCullin, now well into his seventies and as creative and as committed as ever, has become.