TFPI.03 - Art History With Camilla

Don McCullin

Northern Ireland, Londonderry, 1971

Northern Ireland, Londonderry, 1971

Photographers are just vehicles. They’re taxis. You use a taxi to get where you want to go. You use a photographer to show something you want to see. I’m no different; except that I was showing people things they did not want to see.” – Don McCullin [1]

*WARNING: Some viewers may find photographic content disturbing*

Have you ever stood in front of a photograph and felt like the eyes of the person photographed are staring right back at you, boring into your very soul? Have you ever felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, goose bumps spread across your skin, tears prick at your eyes as you look? Have you ever felt your chest tighten and your palms go sweaty as your mind processes the image?

In the case of Don McCullin’s photographic work, it is a challenge not to respond in at least one of these ways. Despite his dislike for such a dismal stereotyping of his work and photographic portfolio, McCullin is best known as a war photographer. Documenting wars in Cyprus, Biafra, Cambodia and Beirut; famine and disease in Bangladesh; the conflicts in Vietnam and Northern Ireland; as well as the African AIDs epidemic; McCullin’s portfolio paints a bleak and harrowing picture of the world. Between the years of 1966 and 1984, McCullin worked as an oversees correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine, accumulating and documenting some of his most renowned and graphic work. Despite his lack of professional training, McCullin developed a gritting photographic eye; capturing angles and people in a highly distinctive monochromatic style.

In the contemporary climate of digital circulation and image accumulation online, our eyes have become increasingly accustomed to disturbing and violet images. Yet during the era in which McCullin was actively working, the publication of gruesome photographic journalism was only just beginning. For the first time in history, people watched bombs blast across the TV screens in their living rooms. People for the first time made their breakfast toast and opened their newspapers to find the horrors brought home to their kitchen.

A U.S Marine Throws a grenade before being shot through his left hand.

A U.S Marine Throws a grenade before being shot through his left hand.

A Marine is carried by tank through the ruins of Citadel

A Marine is carried by tank through the ruins of Citadel

McCullin’s first camera was a £30 Rolleicord; a medium-format twins lens reflex camera. Growing up in the deprived area of north London, McCullin’s career was launched through his documentation of a group of friends who were in a local gang. From an early age he recorded scenes of poverty and working-class life in London; trained his eye to capture the human elements amongst the social chaos and depravity.



Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991

Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991

Brutally honest and incredibly human, McCullin won the trust of the subjects he photographed. He not only looked through his camera, but he looked into their lives. Never the intention to shock; merely to document, McCullin sadly claims “I only use the camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job” [2]. One of his most renowned and circulated works is the photograph seen below, depicting a shell-shocked US marine awaiting his removal from the front line during the Tet Offensive 1968 in Vietnam. The soldier sits rigid, unseeing; gripping his gun upright. McCullin’s camera shutter went several times in front of the soldier and yet he did not blink once. He looks out and over the viewer, a glazed look in his eyes. Shot intimately and personally by McCullin, this arresting photograph captures the pain and trauma of the front line.

djmfn.jpg

Not one to shy away from the travesties of war, McCullin travelled widely and actively to record the resulting devastation of conflicts. He believed that through his photographs, he was giving voice and “speaking for the victims of the casualties of war” [4]. This is certainly true of the image below. It records a wounded father and child in Vietnam, injured when soldiers dropped hand grenades into their bunker. As a viewer, the image is haunting; the child’s eyes stare back whilst the father gazes miserably into the distance. Again, in this instance, McCullin uses his camera to record; to freeze in time a singular moment of trauma and to use the photograph as a tool in “silent protest against the futility of war” [4]

ihbhivv.jpg

Inevitably, the horrors McCullin witnessed haunted him. He had nightmares and a developed a need to seek calm and peace from the images he’d created. He therefore took solace in nature and began documenting stretches of English countryside, as for him the “landscape became a process of healing” [3]. Highly evocative and uncompromising in their signature McCullin moody and monochrome palette, his landscapes represent a road to the future; one that perhaps might one day, be devoid of pain and violence.

inoinb b.png
yufigo.jpg

Thundering skies, sprawling roads and the presence of water are recurring features of McCullin’s landscape photography. He has an immaculate eye for composition and an acute power to convey the intense beauty of nature; successfully bringing his skills as a documentary photographer into play.

Given his impressive work and extensive photographic portfolio, not mention his years of photojournalism, McCullin has been awarded both an OBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and Hons FRPS (Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain). Titles, he most certainly deserves.  

 

References:

[1] Don McCullin, Photofile, Thames & Hudson, 2007

[2] Don McCullin quoted in Understanding A Photograph, John Berger, Penguin Classics 2013

Watch:

[3] Tate Video, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/don-mccullin-7026/don-mccullin-i-hate-being-known-war-photographer

[4] Tate video, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/don-mccullin-7026/don-mccullin-futility-war