Visiting the Don McCullin exhibition at the Tate Britain this week left me surprisingly flat. His work, alongside other conflict photographers, first sparked my interest in photography. Since then, and influenced by my own experiences in the British Army, my opinion of the self confessed war chaser has become more nuanced. I was glad to learn from someone who’s known and worked with McCullin for 30years that he hasn’t lost his soul from all the conflict he’s seen and captured. Armed with this knowledge, I entered the exhibition with an open mind hoping to see some light and evidence of this. I was disappointed.
Occupying 11 rooms at the gallery, the scale of the work on show is considerable with over 250 photographs to view; images start with early London before moving in chronological order to Berlin, Biafra, Cyprus, Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Vietnam, the list of conflicts covered by McCullin rolls on. And yet…
The exhibition’s introduction states that McCullin printed every work himself ‘time and time again to produce the best possible prints.’ This statement is repeated throughout the exhibition, emphasising how important the museum believe this is. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, McCullin was quoted as saying ”… digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.” Perhaps it is me, as I have always worked in digital, but I see little difference between digital editing and someone returning to their dark room “time and time again”.
Other phrases are also often repeated and the exhibition makes an effort to state that McCullin returned to certain themes ‘throughout his career’ ‘always highlighting social inequality.’ While the images of the Homeless are certainly arresting, the portraits in particular, the dates of the two dozen or so images lack accuracy and would suggest only three visits in 20years. And as for the shots showing humour, including a knobbly knees competition; there are only four prints.
The captions are questionable in the Vietnam room which is filled with images from McCullin’s experience with the United States Marine Corps in Hue captioning those depicted as ‘soldiers’. Later a McCullin quote includes “106mm howitzers”. I find it odd that someone with as much military experience as McCullin would call a marine a soldier and get the calibre of 105mm artillery wrong. This leads me to question the source of the quotes and the captions; was it McCullin or is the Tate Britain putting words into his mouth?
And herein lies the problem; not only are the captions and quotes are full of hyperbole, they are also full of bias. The construction of the Berlin Wall is quoted as “obviously the most important story of the day”. Other quotes include;
‘I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs.’
‘You have no right to be here I told myself, my throat contracted, and I was on the verge of tears.’
‘Tired of the guilt.’
‘I do tend to turn my landscapes into battlegrounds… I can’t explain why I just turn everything into a somber dark image.’
The quotes, alongside the images, paint McCullin as a tortured soul who deliberately seeks darkness; the Bradford images being a case in point. However having served myself some years ago now and volunteered to deploy, I recognise that seeking out the atrocities on display is neither normal nor healthy. The captions also go to pains to inform visitors that McCullin tried his best to gain consent for his images. This is at odds to those who have seen him work and call him “primarily a predator who will get the photo first and then ask permission afterwards”. And bear in mind those photographed were often traumatised and in little position to offer consent. The captions impose today’s consent morality into situations where I believe it would have been impossible to gain.
The result of these factors, combined with the avalanche of conflict imagery (ten of the eleven rooms are devoted to these images), portray McCullin as one dimensional. The exhibition reinforces McCullin’s established reputation, myth building and promoting McCullin through only selected aspects of his work. I learned nothing new, and nothing supporting the opinion of the sources who know the man. Has McCullin returned to any of the countries after the resolution of conflict? Did he cover The Fall of the Berlin Wall, has he been to Ireland since The Good Friday agreement? Does he still shoot with film or does he use a digital camera?
They say the devil is in the detail; I found much of the detail on show at best confusing and at worst incorrect. Taken at face value, work is immense and McCullin is quite rightly applauded. While I understand historiography, I am uneasy about attributing modern values and standards onto past events and question the presentation and direction of the exhibition.
*2019_04_16 Since being published I have been informed, ‘The titles for all the photos came from McCullin not the staff at the Tate. Hence the use of words like tribe, Irishman, Londonderry. It was a source of considerable discomfort for the staff but he insisted.’