Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Profile: Don McCullin

Steel foundry at West Hartlepool in 1963 - Image by Don McCullin

Don McCullin is one of the most iconic photographers of the 20th century, although he probably wouldn't like to be regarded as such. His story is even more remarkable when you consider that he went into a career as a photographer by accident, and not by choice.

McCullin found an interest in photography during his national service with the Royal Air force but after he left the RAF, his interest waned until he was asked by a local east end gang to photograph them. The well composed image shows the gang called 'The Guvnors' posed, all of them in smart suits, against the backdrop of a bombed out building. A few months after the gang's photo had been taken, a policeman was killed nearby in one of the gangland disputes that some of the photographed gang had been involved with. The image was used by the Observer newspaper as part of its coverage of the story. The photograph was to launch Don McCullin into a career as a newspaper photographer that would see him photograph some of the worst places on earth.

McCullin's time at the Observer saw him win the World Year press award for 1964 with his images of the conflict raging in Cyprus, but the photographer had his eye on The Sunday Times; the newspaper had been transformed during the sixties from an old fashioned paper into a modern young looking newspaper with a colour magazine. For McCullin, they were the ultimate paper to work for and he would stay with the paper for eighteen years. It would be the Sunday Times magazine that would give McCullin the perfect canvas to show his work to the world.

Probably his best work of the 1960's, was in Vietnam where McCullin's images of the U.S Marines battling the Viet Cong in Hue showed the true terrifying nature of an urban battle. Hue was the cultural capital of Vietnam, a Cambridge and Oxford all rolled into one, but large parts of the city were destroyed by artillery and rockets within a matter of days. McCullin managed to capture the wars affect on both sides with an image of a shell shocked marine and a haunting photograph of a dead Viet Cong soldier, his personal belongings scattered around him. Regardless of the fact that this was an 'enemy' soldier, McCullin's image gave that man a life, an identity and a family.

McCullin has always remained a compassionate photographer despite the various conflicts he has worked in. This is his biggest strength and the reason why his images work so well forty years on. The wars change but the reaction on the faces of the soldiers don't. His work in South East Asia included time spent in Cambodia, where McCullin would be injured during an Khmer Rouge ambush that killed several Cambodian paratroopers. Loaded aboard a vehicle full of wounded, he was horrified to find that the truck went back towards the area of the ambush. After a period that seemed like hours, the truck eventually made its way to hospital where the photographer remained until he was removed to another hospital and then sent home. During his time recovering from his wounds, McCullin started to think about a photography project that would document the people of the UK; some of whom lived in the most deprived areas of the country.

The images taken around the UK during the 1970's by Don McCullin went on the form the book 'Homecoming' that was released in 1979. The images are often have a bleak view of Britain but the characters shine through in the images. He was only photographing what he saw and often it would reflect his own poor upbringing. The U.K was undergoing a social and economic change not seen since the end of the war, and McCullin's images reflected this transition. Many of the photographs looked at those who were at the edge of society; the old, the homeless, the ill and the poor. His images were dark and, for some, too dark in nature. Was that the Britain we lived in? Yes; but the photographs home in on the part that we choose to ignore. Those without a voice or representation.

Don McCullin continued to photograph for the Sunday Times until the mid 1980's when the new media barons started to change the face of British newspapers forever. The editors started to focus away from the human interest story and go with the celebrity stories that have become part of our modern culture....sadly! After various problems at his paper, McCullin decided to quit in 1984 and go freelance. He has remained an important photographic figure even after he quit war photography. To say he is just a war photographer is just unfair. His current work includes landscapes, portraits and still life; in all of these photographic areas he has displayed a unique style. He still continues to photograph certain photojournalism projects but remains active in all areas of photography. His images have come at a cost. McCullin's books often put across the fact that he is haunted by his war images. He may have taken images away from the conflicts he visited, but in turn, the conflicts have taken something from him.

All images by Don McCullin
Top left - The Guvnors - 1959
Middle right - Shell shocked marine, Hue 1968
Middle left - Dead Vietcong with belongings, Hue 1968
bottom right - An Irish vagrant
- London's East End

Don McCullin has released several books including an excellent autobiography called 'Unreasonable Behaviour'. Some others include:

Sleeping with Ghosts
In England


Don McCullin at the V&A


JennyB said...

I love this photo... do you have more?

teacher dude said...

I came across McCullin's work by chance last summer and it really made a deep impression on me. I would definitely recommend his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour.

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