Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain review ****

Don McCullin

Tate Britain, 1st May 2019

The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.

His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.

The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.

He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.

Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.

An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.

“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”