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Photography Review Through a lens darkly

A new exhibition shows why Don McCullin is such a brilliant chronicler of a conflicted world, says JOHN GREEN

Don McCullin
Tate Britain

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.

Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968
Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

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.

Derry, 1971
Derry, 1971

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.”

The Bogside, Derry, 1971
The Bogside, Derry, 1971

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.

Protester, Cuban Missile Crisis, Whitehall, London 1962
Protester, Cuban Missile Crisis, Whitehall, London 1962

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.

Seaside pier on the south coast, Eastbourne, UK 1970s
Seaside pier on the south coast, Eastbourne, UK 1970s

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.

Sheep going to the slaughter house in the early morning near Caledonia Road, 1995
Sheep going to the slaughter house in the early morning near Caledonia Road, 1995

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.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961
Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961

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.

The theatre on the Roman city of Palmyra, party destroyed by Islamic State fighters 2017
The theatre on the Roman city of Palmyra, party destroyed by Islamic State fighters 2017

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.

Woods near my house, Somerset, 1991
Woods near my house, Somerset, 1991

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.

The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958
The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

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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