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AS SOON as you enter this monumental retrospective celebrating Don McCullin’s life and work, you are immediately aware of being confronted with a treasure trove of one of the world’s foremost photojournalists in a full tour of his almost 70 years as a photographer.
It begins in the early 1950s, with iconic shots taken around his home stomping ground of East London. “The guvnors,” depicting a gang of youngsters lounging with proprietorial arrogance on the first floor of a skeletal half-demolished house in Finsbury Park, is like a stage set from West Side Story. And there are early photos of police taking action against anti-fascist demonstrators and CND marchers.
From there, McCullin went on to become a war photographer of renown, working in many of the world’s hottest trouble spots. He is, though, unhappy with being depicted solely as a war photographer. “There are social wars that are worthwhile,” he says. “I don’t want to encourage people to think photography is only necessary through the tragedy of war.”
It is impossible to do full justice to an exhibition which moves from Berlin, Biafra and Cyprus to the Congo, from Vietnam, London’s East End and Roman ruins in Syria to the civil war in Northern Ireland and, finally, to contemplative Somerset landscapes. Almost every single image is searing, iconic and memorable.
But what is forcibly communicated by his photographs is a deep humanity and humility. He captures profound moments of human dignity and pain within the landscape of broader tragedy and he does so with the eyes of a consummate artist.
Although McCullin also shot in colour, the images on show are all in black and white. Most were developed in his own darkroom as silver gelatine prints, which bring out intense coal-dark tones and contrasting sharp slivers of light.
Berlin, as the wall is being built in 1961, depicts a city perched on a tinderbox. GIs eyeball East German soldiers and a US tank, parked like a huge iguana in the middle of the road, points its long-barrelled gun in the direction of an East Berlin residential quarter.
In Biafra, a mother sits with resigned stoicism while the emaciated baby on her lap suckles uselessly on a breast, wrinkled and desiccated like a dried fig.
Depicting the gritty, grimy reality of war from the US side, his Vietnam images are among his best-known works and in them there are no heroics, just a bloody savage conflict and human degradation.
His photographs of deprivation in Bradford and Durham, taken during the 1960s and 1970s, could be images from a Dickensian past — how have we tolerated such abject poverty and still do, one wonders. They capture a raw hardship, conveyed through a stark aesthetic sensibility.
After a lifetime of war, McCullin says, he has now “sentenced himself to peace.” He spends more time photographing landscapes and still lifes devoid of human beings. They do indeed resonate peace, tranquillity and the silence of graveyards but are still characterised by dark forbidding clouds, skeletal trees, cold sheets of water and desolation.
After what he has witnessed and endured, that’s not really surprising.
Not to be missed.
Runs until May 6, box office: tate.org.uk
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