Saturday, February 09, 2019

McCullin and me

The celebrated photographer Don McCullin has an exhibition on at Tate Britain. He is 83 and the exhibition covers his lifetime's work - the last 60 years. It is stupendous.

 McCullin  is a photographer with a social conscience and has photographed homeless, poor and downtrodden people in London and the north of England, but is better known for his photographs of wars all over the world. 

This may sound dreary to you, and I, myself, was dithering over whether I should go to the exhibition. I worried that as a visual person I might find some of the images too horrific, and that they would stay in my memory and haunt me. But on the other hand, there I was in London and the exhibition seemed important, covering as it does the main conflicts that have happened in my life (including the Troubles in Northern Ireland), as well as disasters like the famine in Biafra and the aids epidemic in South Africa. 

There are too many subject areas to list here, so here is a plan of the exhibition to give you some idea:

So many of these things were happening when I was a teenager and unconcerned, or when I was busy with work and children and I hadn't the time I have now to keep up with the news. (It's ironic that now I do have the time, I find the news too bad to read. Was it always this way?)

So I went, and I am glad I did. It knocked me out. I would go and see it again tomorrow if I lived in London. 

Yes, there was horror and heartache, but there was humanity and intense observation and let's not forget - beautiful photography. It seemed to me that the other visitors in the gallery were quieter than is usually the case in art exhibitions. No-one was talking. We were all gripped by the power of the images and what lay behind them. 

McCullin's words:

and here's a statement he made about neutrality:

I made my way along the walls, gallery to gallery, concentrating, and was some way in when I came to a photo of a dead Vietnamese soldier, his small possessions scattered in front of him, and was brought to tears by McCullin's caption underneath:

This was early on in his career. 

When we came to the room with the famine photographs, there was this caption:

His photos of people living in poverty were as striking, moving and powerful as those of people dying in poverty.

Since the 1980s McCullin has engaged in still life and landscape photography to escape his memories of the horrors of war. The photographers among you might like these photos. I am not a fan of black and white landscape photography, though I fully accept the arguments for it in photojournalism. 

Something puzzled me while I was at the exhibition. The other time I was moved to tears was at the photo of an Irish teenager, jubilant after throwing stones at soldiers in the British Army, inexpertly rendered here, secondhand:

with apologies to McCullin for the poor copy
After thinking about it on the journey home, I understood my reaction. First let me say that that I am not taking sides with the British Army, nor am I condemning the teenager's actions. And also, this is my personal reaction, in the moment, and of course others would react differently. 

Why I was upset was....Having spent time engrossed in images of war and it's aftermath, to see a young man embarking on it with enthusiasm made the whole idea of the peaceful solving of conflicts seem an impossible dream to a pacifist like me. There will always be wars. And there will always be people who like to fight in them. 

The McCullin exhibition is an education. I shall be thinking about it for a long, long time. 

The exhibition is on at Tate Britain until May 6th. If you want to know more about McCullin there's a documentary about him called Looking for England currently available on BBC iPlayer.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful introduction to McCullin, Sue.

I was looking forward to seeing the exhibition anyway - photography tutor says it is is a ‘must see’, for anyone who can - your reaction to it is great confirmation. A treat to look forward to.


Sue Hepworth said...

Oh, that’s great!