Don McCullin: Landscape, Witness, Memory
Don McCullin, American soldiers, Friedrichstrasse near Checkpoint Charlie, at the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961 (1961), gelatin silver print, 38.4 x 38.5 cm. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images
“I met an Englishwoman in Africa. She said she became a doctor because she saw one of my pictures. That’s all I want – just one doctor in Africa.”
– Don McCullin, 2010
After opening to critical acclaim at the National Gallery last February, Don McCullin: A Retrospective is showing at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 1 November 2013 to 11 January 2014. Critics called the exhibition “splendid,” “moving,” “brilliant,” “powerful” and “not to be missed.”
Don McCullin’s photographs of Indian elephant festivals in the dawn’s mist convey a quiet, sensuous dignity. His Turneresque views of the Somerset wetlands – as he says, the “landscape of Arthurian myth” – are lyrical and brooding. Such relatively tranquil images are a departure, however, from McCullin’s earlier work: they represent his retreat from a chaotic London and a horror-filled world beyond, a balm for his wounds. For in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, McCullin documented the most nightmarish human brutality in dozens of war-torn countries, courting death on many levels. The resulting images, dark and unsettling, seem to project an audible wail.
An exhibition of some 130 black-and-white photographic prints made by this British photojournalist over four decades, Don McCullin: A Retrospective explores a journey from working-class England to the killing fields and finally to peaceful Somerset, revealing the searing outrage and compassion of a “concerned photographer.” Drawn from several collections, the show features works from all of McCullin’s major series: portraits of the poor and the homeless in London and northern England (1958–early 1970s); the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961); war and famine in Cyprus, the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lebanon, Ireland and Iraq (1963–91); elephant festivals (1989–98); and landscapes in Somerset, England and northern France (1988–2000).
Curator of Photographs Ann Thomas, who organized the exhibition, was originally drawn to McCullin’s war photographs for their significance as social and political documents, and their depiction of the harsh reality of war. “It probably comes out of the same interest I have in Goya’s The Disasters of War and Otto Dix’s Der Krieg,” she says. More recently, Thomas has been equally engaged by his landscape photographs. “They are very melancholic, not surprisingly, but they have a majesty to them and a sense of infinite space.”
McCullin’s images of people are compelling for their narrative depth, sombre, moody lighting and dramatic composition. Scenes of workers and unemployed miners in the industrial north of England are shrouded in an oppressive mist. Many of the war photographs focus on one dynamic figure in full action, or conversely, on a folded, inert body. His landscapes, which often resemble muddy battlefields, share the same dark moodiness, lending McCullin’s oeuvre a remarkable coherence despite the variation in subject matter.
Born in 1935, Don McCullin grew up in Finsbury Park, London, a “horrible” district, according to him, that “oozed poverty, bigotry and all kinds of hatred and violence.” His childhood was marked by adversity, especially wartime evacuations and the early death of his father. McCullin purchased his first camera, a Rolleicord, while doing military duty in Kenya in 1955, and once demobilized, started photographing his neighbours in Finsbury Park. Among his early subjects were members of a local gang, the Guv’nors, who posed wearing their Sunday suits, standing in a bombed-out building. The resulting image, The Guv’nors, Finsbury Park, London, Great Britain (1958), shot from below, displays the subjects’ rock-star cockiness. When the Guv’nors were involved in the murder of a London policeman shortly after that photo session, McCullin managed to sell his image to the Observer, a well-established British weekly. The murderer was subsequently convicted and hanged. McCullin later reflected on how such a morally loaded picture had launched his career: “The jumping-off point for my whole life was based on a terrible act of violence and its consequences.”
Don McCullin, The Guv'nors, Finsbury Park, London, Great Britain (1958), gelatin silver print, 34.5 x 34.6 cm. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images
For the next couple of years, and intermittently over the decades, McCullin focused his lens on his own country, revealing the gritty realities and lingering class rift of post-war England. He photographed kids fighting in a garbage-littered London street and unemployed men gathering coal in a grim, denuded northern England. McCullin’s dramatic style was emerging, as was his political voice, which consistently spoke for the dispossessed.
In 1961, McCullin made his first foray into international news coverage, travelling as a freelancer to Germany to photograph the construction of the Berlin Wall. His foreboding images convey the brittle tension of the moment, a time when the U.S., the Soviet Union, and East Germany were facing off with tanks and a third world war seemed on the horizon. In Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin (1961), a well-dressed woman approaches a pair of soldiers, the foreground dominated by an automatic weapon and a huge jackboot. Ironically reminiscent of Ruth Orkin’s breezy American Girl in Italy (1951), this image warns of darker times ahead.
McCullin’s Berlin Wall photographs were published in the Observer and garnered him both a contract with the newspaper and a British Press Photography Award. By 1964, the paper was sending him to conflict zones, starting with Cyprus. McCullin arrived there just weeks after fighting broke out between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and immediately insinuated himself into the middle of a deadly firefight in the port town of Limassol. The result was a series of sometimes terrifying, sometimes heartbreaking shots of armed fighters, shooting victims and bereft survivors. Turkish woman mourning the death of her husband (1964), which won a World Press Photo of the Year Award, is a devastating expression of the subject’s anguish, a photojournalist’s The Scream.
Don McCullin, Turkish woman mourning the death of her husband killed by Greek forces during the Civil War, Limassol, Cyprus (1964), gelatin silver print, 33.1 x 50.3 cm. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images
Cyprus was McCullin’s first encounter with the carnage of combat, and he approached his work there with the solemn care of the great war artists who preceded him: painters such as Goya and Otto Dix; photographers like Matthew Brady and Robert Capa. He later wrote about photographing the victims of a massacre: “I started composing my pictures in a very serious and dignified way. It was the first time I had pictured something of this immense significance and I felt as if I had a canvas in front of me and I was, stroke by stroke, applying the composition to a story that was telling itself. I was, I realized later, trying to photograph in a way that Goya painted or did his war sketches.”
That same year, McCullin covered the brutal civil war in the Congo, and subsequently, Israel’s Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nigeria-Biafra War, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Uganda, Angola and Beirut. In each place he worked alongside soldiers, mercenaries, torturers and victims, enduring the harshest of physical and emotional conditions, surviving wounds and near misses, and bearing witness to unimaginable atrocities.
These photographs make difficult but necessary viewing. Even if, much to McCullin’s chagrin, they have been powerless to eradicate violence in this world, they have certainly been instrumental in shaping public attitudes. His pictures were so successful in raising public opposition to the Vietnam War that a decade later the British government barred him from covering the Falklands War. McCullin wants people to be stirred by his work, and preferably,
driven to action, as was the Englishwoman who became a doctor after seeing his work. “I want people to look at my photographs,” he says. “I don’t want them to be rejected because people can’t look at them … I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures. I want the voice to seduce people into actually hanging on a bit longer when they look at them, so they go away not with an intimidating memory but with a conscious obligation.” Thomas agrees: “We are deluded and complacent with these images so I can’t imagine how more so we might be without them.”
Don McCullin, U.S. Marines with wounded soldier, the Citadel, Hue (1968), gelatin silver print, 35.7 x 54.7 cm. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images
Don McCullin is not the first artist to depict atrocities and his images are less graphic than, for example, Otto Dix’s. What sets McCullin apart is the respectfulness and compassion he shows towards victims, which is sometimes apparent in the photographs he doesn’t take. Once, in Vietnam, when a horribly wounded soldier looked him in the eye, seeming to beg, “Please don’t do that,” he laid down his camera. American essayist Susan Sontag wrote about the sheer unforgettability of his photographs: “Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens and cannot possibly encompass all the reality of a people’s agony, they still perform an immensely positive function. The image says: keep these events in your memory.” For military historian Alex Danchev, McCullin’s photographs give voice to the returning soldiers who are so often silenced by the horrors they have witnessed. “These portraits lay claim to being the most immediate and the most profound communication of incommunicable experience available to us,” he writes.
Don McCullin, The Somerset Levels below Glastonbury, UK (1994), gelatin silver print, 38.1 x 55.4 cm. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images
In recent years, McCullin has spoken of his move to the countryside as a salve. “The landscape became a kind of process of healing so I could forget about wars and revolutions and dying children, because I was beginning to take those memories to bed with me at night, and having terrible dreams, and terrible nightmares, and feeling guilty, and waking up in a sweat.” The photographs live on, however, lest we forget.
Don McCullin: A Retrospective is on view at the WAG from 1 November 2013 to 11 January 2014. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.