A review by Terry Sweeney
Don McCullin’s career spans more than sixty years. He is one of the UK’s greatest living photographers, and arguably our greatest ever war photographer.
But his subject matter is wide ranging. He has documented early 60’s street gangs in London, poverty in London’s East End, Liverpool and other Northern cities, still life, landscapes and the horrors of war in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The images on display here cover his whole career. The 250 plus images, often accompanied by his own captions to bring them to life, are vibrant and arresting, and show his wonderful compositional skills and his deep empathy for his subjects.
McCullin began his career in 1959 with a photograph of the London gang ‘The Guvnors’, which he took to the Observer. When he sold it, he was commissioned to take more of the same.
That £50 commission was a king’s ransom to the young McCullin and he used it as the springboard to a fulfilling career, particularly when photographing conflicts around the world
He spent almost twenty years at the Sunday Times. His photographs raised awareness of atrocities as they were happening, but at some personal cost to himself; both physically (he was wounded in Cambodia by a mortar bomb and one of the men he was with that day died), and emotionally, with feelings of guilt that he was profiting from other peoples misery.
His empathy is obvious in his work, and was influenced by his own challenging childhood. His early photographs of street culture in London, and the homelessness there and in Liverpool and across the north, are extremely powerful. They documented the social issues of the time and the impact of poverty and the death of many of the UK’s industries.
Unusually McCullin printed every image in this exhibition himself in his home darkroom. His printing expertise informs his compositional skills, and cements his memories of the events and people he has captured.
He also has a love of landscape photography. Some of the most haunting images here are from the Somerset levels, where he now lives. Even then, some of the landscapes are reminiscent of his war photography.
His captions of the photographs displayed here give a deeply personal perspective on what he observed at the time of the photograph. The captions give when and where they were taken, but also his interpretation of those events as a first hand witness or as someone involved in what was happening.
Liverpool and the North
He first visited Liverpool when he was fifteen years old, working on a steam train that travelled up from London every week. Later, as a photojournalist, he came back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s to record the changes to the city.
These included the slum clearances that took place (images that uncannily remind viewers of a war zone). Liverpool reminded McCullin of his own background, and he became very fond of the city. He also spent time with artists and poets including Adrian Henri and Brian Patten for a 1967 Telegraph Magazine story written by Roger McGough, and documented the poets for the Sunday Times in 1980.
His photographs of Bradford display his deep affection for that city and its people, and those of Consett show a way of life that has now vanished.
London’s East End
McCullin photographed men and women living on the edges of society (and the edge of London’s Square Mile). The photographs in the exhibition span the 1960s to the 1980’s.
What is striking in the images from Aldgate, Spitalfields and Whitechapel are that the streets are unrecognisable following the massive influx of money into London, and resultant property boom and gentrification, but despite that boom we still have people living on the streets some 50 years later.
Some of these London images look like echoes of another time; with two youths bare knuckle boxing in one street, and a farmer herding a flock of sheep across a bridge to an abattoir in the City.
McCullin first travelled overseas as a photographer to photograph Berlin, as the wall was being erected.
He then travelled back to Cyprus (having been posted there during National Service), when Turkey invaded the island and the civil war between Turkish and Greek Cypriots was intense.
His photographs here from both of those locations and from subsequent conflicts in the Belgian Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iraq and closer to home, Northern Ireland, show his eye for an arresting image and his empathy for his subjects.
He won the World Press Photograph of the Year in 1964 but was not comfortable winning a prize for ‘depicting other peoples misery’.
McCullin took a memorable series of photographs from the southern borders of the Roman Empire. His images of locations like Palmyra captured a moment of time and recorded the far flung locations of Roman rule.
McCullin has now left behind war reporting. He spends time photographing landscapes. His images of the Somerset Levels, close to his home, show an elegiac view of the landscape, but also a brooding intensity, reminiscent of his war photography.
Don McCullin runs until 09 May 2021 at Tate Liverpool. Book tickets
All photographs © Don McCullin