Tate Britain’s exhibition devoted to the work of the great photographer Don McCullin is, in its own pleasingly straightforward and unpretentious way, one of the finest exhibitions I’ve been to in some years. Of course, as someone who used to peruse the Sunday Times magazine in his teens, when McCullin’s strikingly vivid, often deeply disturbing images were showing us what was going on in Biafra, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Northern Ireland, I knew how affecting his pictures could be. But I was probably too young then to know who he was – it was the images, not the name of the man who took them, that stuck in my mind – and it was only years later, when my friend and colleague Brian Case interviewed McCullin for Time Out magazine, that I came to realise just how famous the photographer was. Even so, I was still not prepared for what the Tate’s superb exhibition held in store for me.
The arrangement of the exhibition is chronologically fairly linear, guiding us through McCullin’s career, from the early work in late 50s London and the first photos taken abroad – just as the Berlin Wall was being built – through the many arenas of deadly conflict he covered (besides the aforementioned countries, he also visited Cyprus, the Congo, Beirut, Iran, Iraq, India and Ethiopia); the final room takes leave at last from people, and deals with still life, architecture and landscapes – including Somerset, where McCullin has made his home. There is, inevitably, much coverage of war, hunger, grief and suffering of all sorts, but such is his complete mastery of his medium – both in the field and in the dark room (every meticulous image on show was printed by McCullin himself) – that the collection never feels remotely repetitive. That’s partly because he has clearly always been a natural at finding the right composition and catching the right moment; partly because his work is so empathetic, compassionate and humane; and partly because his work is so very direct. The truths which it reveals set the mind racing and pierce the heart.
Every single image in the exhibition is a stunner in one way or another – though be advised that some of them are difficult to behold; as someone who wanted to raise his newspapers’ readers awareness of the horrors being perpetrated and suffered around the world, in the hope that that awareness might make a difference somehow, McCullin was unafraid of producing photos that might shock people out of their complacency. But such is his regard for his subjects that one never feels like turning away; they deserve our attention. It is impossible, given the sheer consistency of the work on view, to name ‘favourite’ images. Whether it’s a bunch of East Germans looking over the partly built Wall into West Berlin; a starving young Biafran mother with her baby; an American priest hearing soldiers’ confessions in Vietnam (see image at top); a young Catholic attacking British soldiers in Londonderry; or Kurdish men with prisoners during the Iran-Iraq war; whatever his subject, McCullin produces an indelible image.
One last thing, however: he didn’t only cover violent conflicts abroad. He knew there were other forms of violence and conflict, and they were here, in Britain. He grew up amid poverty in Finsbury Park, and one of the earliest photos in the show is of a gang – the Guvnors – believed to have been involved in the murder of a policeman. He would return to Britain frequently to recover from the psychological and physical traumas he’d suffered in the war zones, but seemed always drawn to the idea of reminding us that terrible poverty, pain, hunger, loneliness, homelessness, prejudice, injustice and inequality were common in Britain. There are extraordinary pictures taken in London’s East End, Bradford, Liverpool, Sunderland and County Durham. Again his compassion for his subjects is as immediately evident as his matchless eye for composition and lighting. And it’s absolutely timely that these powerful, startling images of 60s and 70s Britain should be on show once more at a time when those blights of society are again on the increase, thanks to years of austerity. Those nostalgists who want the UK to return to the glory days of our imperial past, who believe we should make Britain as ‘great’ as it was before it joined the EU, would do well to take a long, close look at McCullin’s work. They have forgotten, surely – or chosen to ignore – what it was really like for so many back then. These photos, like those he took elsewhere, have a searing honesty which cannot be denied.
All photos by Don McCullin, courtesy of Don McCullin. The Don McCullin exhibition continues at Tate Britain until 6 May.