Don McCullin’s exhibition at Tate Britain is profoundly moving, perplexing, and, ultimately joyous.
The galleries were crowded. I had to go round one room in the opposite direction to avoid two people who, standing in front of the horrors of war, were laughing while happily talking about their recent holidays – were they blind?
I am familiar with many of McCullin’s photographs but in the majority of cases in reproduced form in magazines – it was inspiring to see his own prints made exactly the way he wanted.
By the time I reached the final room – that containing his landscapes and still lives – I was overwhelmed by the dedication and passion McCullin has used over so many years to represent the human condition in the worst of circumstances of war, famine and deprivation. His photographs capture the feeling of pain and suffering and it’s not just because the prints are dark – it’s because he feels, cares, and it comes across in his photographs so that I was nearly in tears. But then there was a moment of epiphany – I’ll come back to that.
What is both perplexing and saddening is that the lessons we learnt when we first saw the images from e.g. Biafra and Vietnam have faded. The men living on the streets of Shoreditch years ago are no different from the rough sleepers that now abound thanks to austerity and the destruction of the Welfare State. We are still responsible for war and the misery it causes – the Yemen and Syria to name but two. I found myself asking what was the point? Maybe the point is that the work exists, it was made, it was, is, true, evidence, and that we choose to ignore it at our peril.
His landscapes. The moment of epiphany. The realisation that in the ‘natural’ world, as rendered through his lens, there is beauty beyond measure.
McCullin has said
“So, there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And that I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”
Maybe the joy in these landscapes, this celebration of life and peace, would not have been so profound without the horror, without the guilt, and there would not be this beauty?
It was one hell of a price this man, this photographer, had to pay.
Nice post Phil. Made me think of when I met George Roger. He recounted than when he was photographing the Nazi death camps, that he suddenly realised that he was trying to compose images of piles of dead bodies to make them more attractive. He then realised how absurd that was and had to stop. Keep the faith… Chris.
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Thanks Chris. George Roger’s horrors – yes. Go well.
First saw his photos 30 years ago, at an exhibition he held in Bath (he lived in Somerset at the time, think he still does). They completely overwhelmed me then with their rawness and brutal truth, and have done ever since. His capture of the worst that human beings can inflict on each other is a testament to each of us to strive for better. What haunts me is that his photos suggest we find it hard to achieve this. The peace and beauty held within his landscapes show us the way forward if only we take time to ponder and reflect on their message.
One wonders what pains and tribulations he has always lived with as a consequence of his work …
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A lot of pain and tribulation!