This is an exhibition that I could review in one word: Wow! However, the demands of a learning blog means that a bit more detail is required.
This is a very intense exhibition; there are ‘content advisory’ warnings at the ticket desk and at the entrance to the exhibition space and I still have PTSD a fortnight after visiting (there are images that you just can’t ‘unsee’). Don McCullin is a man who has seen some of the worst that humans can inflict on each other – and refused to turn away.
Although known as a war photographer, he prefers to be simply ‘a photographer’. The prints in this retrospective (unusually, all printed by McCullin himself in his home darkroom) include his news assignment work and his more personal landscapes and still-lifes. It is arranged in a sequence of themed galleries in approximate chronological order. The curators have resisted the temptation to emphasise the more famous images (albino Biafran child, the Guv’nors, shell-shocked marine etc.) but presented all prints in monochrome and approximately the same size, which allows each visitor to find their own ‘most memorable’ image.
Tate Britain have an enlightened policy on photography, permitted providing it is non-flash and non-commercial. I have rephotographed some prints for the purposes of this review. More can be found in the exhibition catalogue (Mehrez, 2019).
The first room covers the early London images, including The Guv’nors, and has a ‘street photography’ feel. I particularly enjoyed the group of boys outside Buckingham Palace in 1960, each with the ubiquitous 127 Brownie camera. This leads into the second room, covering McCullins self-directed trip to Berlin as the Wall and the checkpoints were being built. In these galleries we can already start to see McCullin’s interest in people, with groups of citizens looking confused at soldiers, guards, weapons and the Wall. Also, to a lesser extent, some empathy with the younger troops trapped in the same confusing situation.
The next two galleries deal exclusively with war zones, from the 1964 civil war in Cyprus, through the Congo, Biafra, Cambodia and Vietnam. These are the images where a comment that I made on Facebook (‘get angry, take tissues’) particularly applies. Cyprus is where McCullin says he saw his first bodies, or at least his first newly-dead ‘up close and personal’ and the effect on the families of the dead. His images from this period, inevitably take a darker turn but he is always intensely interested in the people around him, how they cope (or not) with their situation. Many were published in the Sunday Times Magazine and made uncomfortable breakfast-time reading. The images of starving Biafran children are particularly haunting, then and now.
At this stage, I can do no better than quote from the exhibition wall notes:
When presented outside of the pages of print journalism, McCullin’s images are no longer consumed with the immediacy of ‘news’. Instead they become records of past events. In exhibiting these photographs, McCullin provides new audiences with evidence of some of the worst atrocities of the past sixty years. Whilst acknowledging the difficulty of showing such subjects in a gallery setting, McCullin believes that “as newspapers won’t publish these images, they must have a life beyond my archive“
In a break from horror of one kind, the next gallery moves back to the East End in the 1970s, but it is a very different East End from that portrayed by Bailey or Luskačová.
The central gallery includes images from Northern Ireland, but also some light relief. A set called ‘British Summer Time’ shows the humour and eccentricities of the English at play (knobbly knees competitions included) while the images of Bradford and the North show a combination of poverty, humour and resilience.
By accident or inspired curation, this image appears at the halfway point in the exhibition …
… where it has a cathartic effect, causing exhibition visitors to laugh and strike up conversations where they previously been viewing in silence.
The central cabinet in this space is filled with issues of the Sunday Times Magazine, showing how McCullin’s images were first viewed, in massive multiple-page picture-led spreads (rather than the text-heavy anodyne of the current publication), some of which can be viewed wall-size in the adjacent projection room.
The following two galleries are a little more jumbled, juxtaposing tribesmen in southern Ethiopia, the cruel beauty of India, and funerals of AIDS victims with the effects of fighting in Iraq, Bangladesh and Beirut. It is among the Beirut images that I found my own ‘most memorable’: the one that will haunt me for a long time.
Seeing these images at second-hand is disturbing enough (and so it should be) but it is difficult to imagine how it must have been to live the experience and see the horror at first hand. McCullin himself (2015) tells us that his autobiography, ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’ was written partly as therapy; we also get a clue from his personal landscape and still-life work which are hung in the final gallery. The winter landscapes of Somerset, for instance, look like battlefields (there is one image of the Somme landscape among these – like a ‘spot the difference’ competition) being printed very dark; stormy skies let in shafts of light to illuminate the standing water of the Somerset Levels. These are not the work of a man at peace with himself.
In summary, this exhibition is a must-see. It is not necessary to be a photographer to appreciate it, just a human.
McCullin, D. (2015) Unreasonable Behaviour. 2nd edn. London: Jonathan Cape.
Mehrez, A. (2019) Don McCullin. London: Tate Publishing.