Don McCullin's Sunday Times Press Pass, 1977-1978. Courtesy Don McCullin
Born in 1935 in North London to a fishmonger and his wife, Don McCullin grew up in Finsbury Park, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. During the Second World War, he was evacuated to the countryside on three different occasions. Returning to a shattered London, he and his neighbourhood friends fought imaginary battles on Hampstead Heath, and watched John Wayne movies.
Although McCullin struggled at school, a teacher noticed his artistic talent and helped him win a scholarship to the Hammersmith School of Building and Arts and Crafts. Not long into the school year, however, his father died, and McCullin was forced to leave Hammersmith to support his family with a series of jobs. In 1954, he joined the Royal Air Force, working as a photographic assistant, first in Oxfordshire and then overseas. In Kenya in 1955, he bought his first camera, a Rolleicord IV, and began taking street photographs.
Demobilized and back in London, McCullin began photographing his neighbours in Finsbury Park, while working as a darkroom assistant at W.M. Larkins Studio. In 1958, he photographed members of a local gang, the Guv’nors, dressed for an evening out and standing in the skeleton of a building destroyed during the Blitz. After learning that the Guv’nors had been linked to a police murder, McCullin sold his photograph, The Guvnors, Finsbury Park, London, to the Observer newspaper. His photojournalism career subsequently took off.
In 1961, McCullin travelled to Berlin to photograph the construction of the Berlin Wall, winning the British Press Award for his work. In 1964, he covered the war in Cyprus and the Stanleyville massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and won the World Press Photo Premier Award. He made fifteen trips to cover the Vietnam War, photographed famine victims in Biafra and Bangladesh, and documented conflicts in Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, El Salvador, and many other countries.
At the same time, McCullin created an important body of social documentary photographs in his home country of Britain. In London, he photographed children playing in the streets, demonstrators, the homeless, and even The Beatles. In northern England, he focused on unemployed miners, steelworkers and families living in squalor. Later in his career, he photographed HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa, made “anthropological expeditions” to photograph isolated tribes in Ethiopia, and travelled to India to record elephant festivals, and fishermen with their boats. Most recently, he has trained his lens on the landscape of Somerset, England, where he now lives, and on Roman ruins, including Hadrian’s Wall.
Among his numerous honours, Don McCullin has been awarded Commander of the British Empire. A father of five, he lives in Somerset with his third wife Catherine, and their son Max.
Don McCullin: A Retrospective is on view at the NGC from 1 February until 14 April. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.