Bruno Reynell reflects on Tate’s recent retrospective of the British photographer’s 60 year career.
Whether it be photographs of smoke billowing in far-off warzones or footage of flood devastation much closer to home, the unrelenting ubiquity of images documenting ravage, ruin and loss on our newsfeeds and televisions has led many to consider that, as a society, we are increasingly insensitive to the suffering of others. At such a time where we might be losing the capacity to be as shocked as we should be, Don McCullin’s show at Tate Britain presented itself as a sharp antidote.
On display were images standing testimony to McCullin’s sixty year long career as a photographer. Arranged more or less chronologically, they begin with photographs taken in and around Finsbury Park, where he was born and raised. However, for a visitor unacquainted with his work, it is not until the subsequent room that one might gain an inkling into the nature of the images that comprise the majority of the exhibition.
This second room showed the results of a trip McCullin made to Berlin in 1961, without promise of recompense, to record the tense atmosphere pervading both sides of the Wall during its construction. While there are no signs of physical violence in the Berlin images, the anxious faces and alert soldiers offer suggestions of strife and unrest.
What was found in the rooms following this is what McCullin’s name is principally associated with. These are photographs of conflicts and the desperate effect they have on people. Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the locations are numerous and diverse, but all of these images share the same power. They are an inquiry into the darkest depths of the human soul, and a revelation of the most harmful and sinister things we are capable of doing to each other.
Sixteen-year-old boy with no possibility of survival
U.S. Marine medic rushing a wounded two-year-old child from the battle, Hue
Child tied to the bed in a psychiatric hospital to prevent him wandering off amid the broken glass
Vivid and uncompromising, many of the titles alone give an indication of their harrowing nature. Nothing is hidden and the suffering is laid bare – therein lies the force of McCullin’s photographs. There’s no doubting that being bombarded with such images is emotionally draining, but there’s something about his work that demands your prolonged attention.
And what is it that prevents you from averting your gaze? There can be no straightforward answer, but a couple of common traits seem to run throughout.
One is the presence of a powerful story underpinning each photograph. On a basic level this is of course resultant from the fact that he was often working for news publications. However, even if you don’t know the context surrounding a particular image, you can’t help but feel moved by it. McCullin is famed for his ability to empathise with the subjects of his work, and, in turn, this allows us to see a unique depth of emotion etched on the faces of the individual figures – almost as if the impact of surrounding circumstances on a life has been distilled into one expression.
There’s also the simple fact that, despite their uncomfortable content, the photographs are aesthetically pleasing to look at. The composition of his work is elegant as his subjects are flawlessly situated in their environs. Images such as Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam and On a hill in Da Nang a priest hears soldiers’ confessions look as though they could easily be
iconic film stills. On top of this, the gelatin silver prints at the Tate’s exhibition are beautiful objects in themselves. All hand-rendered by McCullin in his
own darkroom, the stunning greyscale results are a testament to his skill as a printer, and his determination to do justice to the content.
The landscape photographs rounding off the exhibition are as good a place as any to observe the stark beauty of the piercing whites, subtle greys and oppressive blacks. Despite the lack of human presence in these images, they have their own drama. In their darkness, they seem to act as catharsis for a photographer who has seen so much destruction and experienced so much guilt at not having been able to help more those in pain.
Tate Britain’s retrospective was a unprecedented opportunity to celebrate the work of a greatly talented and courageous individual. Photographer, journalist, storyteller, artist – McCullin blurs the lines, both through the essential nature of his photographs, as well as through their immense quality.
Featured Image: Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968.