Don McCullin at the National Media Museum


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Don McCullin at the National Media Museum

By Francis Hodgson

Published: July 31 2009 23:06 | Last updated: July 31 2009 23:06

The travel writer Norman Lewis became a close friend of Don McCullin while they were travelling on assignments together for The Sunday Times. “I learnt from him,” Lewis told his biographer Julian Evans, “how beautiful the ordinary can be, where previously the only things that attracted me really were non-ordinary things. But with him, I would see him suddenly spellbound by the beauty of rain drizzling down the mountainside, where I would normally pass it by, I wouldn’t notice it was happening.”

The conventional wisdom is that McCullin escaped by the skin of his teeth from an addiction to war and became a landscape photographer whose bleak, stormy vision of the British countryside was informed by the demons of a career whose horrors most of us could not imagine. There is a certain amount of truth in this, but it is too simplistic. McCullin is a subtle man whose particular gift has been to find a style of photography – that is to say a manner of expressing himself – which, while respecting the dignity of those he photographs, misses no iota of his anger at the injustices and the absurdities he chooses unblinkingly to see.

A photograph by Don McCullin, ‘Sitting in deckchairs, Blackpool'
‘Sitting in deckchairs, Blackpool’ (early 1970s)

McCullin’s latest book is called In England, and an exhibition derived from it is on show at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Beyond a few demonstrations, it contains no pictures of conflict. Yet every picture is beautifully, recognisably McCullin’s. It is not the olive drab of the subjects that makes the manner, so much as the applied intelligence of the photographer.McCullin represents an odd split in the appreciation of photographs in Britain. On the one hand, he is routinely described as the greatest of war photographers, he has been awarded a CBE and included in “greatest hits” shows for as long as anybody can remember. In 1967, for example, long before interest in photography picked up in the mid-1970s, McCullin was included in the oddly named Modfot One (it meant “modern photography”), which became a British Council touring exhibition of some importance and contributed to the increased attention given to photography as an art form in its own right.

On the other hand, McCullin, born in 1935, is part of a lost generation of British social photographers whose work remains insufficiently published and understood. In this, he takes his place alongside the likes of Ray Moore, 15 years his senior, Tony Ray Jones, born in 1941, Graham Smith, born in 1947, or Chris Killip, born in 1946. None of them are unknown, but nor do they have a tenth of the recognition they deserve. Compared, for example, to that group loosely known as the French humanist photographers – such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau – the British group are barely acknowledged at all.

All of them were consciously influenced by Bill Brandt, and McCullin was no different. He wasn’t some instinctive photographer picking up ideas at random. He has often made it plain that he felt himself to be ill-educated, and he was diagnosed as dyslexic. Yet he was meticulous in acquiring and understanding the waypoints of the craft he was to excel in. McCullin actively sought Brandt out, asked him questions, and looked attentively at his work. At no stage in his career has McCullin been frightened of black tones in a print. He got that from Brandt.

From Brandt, also, McCullin got a certain dualistic view of British society, split between toffs and toughs. Brandt was from a banking family; McCullin from a modest background in Finsbury Park, north London. But the longstanding divisions between the north and south of England, between the Ashura festival in Bradford and the Goodwood Festival of Speed (both brilliantly represented by McCullin in this exhibition) were the same for each. The exhibition is full of marvellous essays on McCullin’s perception of privilege and deprivation. He is as good as L.S. Lowry, as good as George Orwell.

A photograph by Don McCullin, ‘West Hartlepool, Co. Durham, 1963’
‘West Hartlepool, Co. Durham, 1963’

In “West Hartlepool, Co. Durham, 1963”, a man hunches against a biting wind, marching away from the camera, visible only as an overcoated silhouette against a classic smokestack-scape in which the smoke is driven horizontally by that same wind. You feel not only the cold but the hardship. That man has done that walk every day for maybe 40 years, and he’s got precisely nowhere. Yet a picket fence next to him has bowed aside in his wake, blown over by the sheer drive of an ordinary working man. This is not the photography of a simple follower of Bill Brandt: it takes inspiration from many sources. Nor is it the photography of an adventurer, an adrenaline junkie. Yet that is somehow, coarsely, how we still tend to think of McCullin, one of the great visual artists of our time. It must be frustrating for him.

A photograph by Don McCullin, ‘Gypsy Watching the Police Evict his Family, Kent'
‘Gypsy Watching the Police Evict his Family, Kent, 1961’

There is a portrait called “Gypsy Watching the Police Evict his Family, Kent, 1961”. Just a man alone with his thoughts, a bandana around his neck, and his hair flying, pain and doubt and the desire for revenge all fixed in his face. The sitter was good-looking, but McCullin gave that man beauty where he might have given him merely sympathy. In its romanticism it reminds me of the great head-and-shoulder studies of Julia Margaret Cameron, and in its social attention of John Thompson or Lewis Hine. We know from his interviews and his writings that McCullin would never have taken that picture without the gypsy at some level allowing him to. McCullin was never sneaky, never a voyeur. He was already a great photographer, then, long before he went to Vietnam and fame.Again and again McCullin matches up to the greatest specialists of the genre. His unemployed coal pickers, in Sunderland in 1964, shoving heavily laden bikes towards us, are both a tribute to and the equal of Brandt’s famous coal-pickers from 30 years before. His marvellously emotional landscapes are sometimes the equal of Fay Godwin’s. McCullin has the same knack of finding places that were once far more important to people than they are now. Hadrian’s Wall is obviously so, but even in the fenlands of the Somerset Levels he finds places where the meticulous digging of the drainage ditches could only have been done by a population more committed to those wet acres than any there now.

Brandt, like Orwell, T.H. White (author of the powerfully idealistic Once and Future King) and others, was obsessed with Englishness, and McCullin comes from that line. He remains a very literary photographer, his pictures acting as the vehicle for complex, eloquent complex essays on what it means to be him and to be here. It is our good fortune that he feels that he cannot put them into words.

‘Don McCullin: In England’ National Media Museum, Bradford, UK until September 27. Tel: 0870 701 0200 www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk

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