To coincide with the major retrospective at Tate Britain, Hamiltons Gallery London is showing the photographic oeuvre of Sir Don McCullin – exhibiting rare and unseen vintage prints dating back to the 1950s.
Selected from the photographer’s personal archive, they were made shortly after the photographs were first taken on assignments around the world. Intimate and physically modest, the prints provide access to events witnessed and recorded by a photojournalist working on the frontline of multiple, international flashpoints from Vietnam to Cyprus.
Largely produced for a photo editor or agency in a pre-digital age, these historic prints have been visibly put to work and bear the physical marks of their use. In these pictures McCullin shares the telling details of a human face or the gestures of a hand. As he earns his subjects’ trust, he communicates their crisis. To comprehend each remarkable scene, the viewer is pulled in tight as if we are standing beside McCullin in proximity to an anxious soldier, a pointed gun or a grieving wife.
McCullin was born in 1935 in London’s Finsbury Park. Leaving school at fifteen, McCullin signed up to National Service in the RAF as a photographic assistant. In 1958, McCullin took his first published photograph of The Guvnors, a London gang who had been involved in a murder, appearing in The Observer that same year.
This professional success combined with his photographs documenting building of the Berlin Wall secured his contract with The Observer in 1961. At first working in London, he soon earned commissions that took him around the world, beginning with the Cyprus War in 1964. This marked the start of his career as a photographer of war and other human disasters.
McCullin’s instinct for getting close to the heart of a conflict enables him to achieve these remarkably intimate images, as highlighted in this exhibition. His sympathies lie with the victims on both sides of the conflict.
Perhaps his most reproduced photograph of The Vietnam War is his Shell-Shocked Marine, which is included in this exhibition. McCullin recalls dropping to his knees to take the picture, taking five consecutive shots. In each, the marine’s expression did not change; he did not blink once.
“What strikes one is the proximity. McCullin is not an observer, he is in the image. Within just one or two metres of the combatants or victims. Not only that, but he speaks to the photographed people. His is with them. He resembles them. In the portrait that Nik Wheeler took of him in 1968, nothing distinguishes him from the combatant behind him except that he has a camera around his neck. Sixty years on, he can take any photo from Vietnam and identify those present and say a word about each one. “He is of Scottish origin, he was killed a few days later; this guy here, I carried him on my shoulders when he was wounded.” His autobiography overflows with similar remarks.”
Alain Frachon & Michel Guerrin forLe Monde*
In addition to his war imagery, over the years McCullin has also produced iconic photographs of people and places in England, capturing his candid and uncompromising view of his homeland. McCullin’s England photographs reveal the social gulf where the separation of rich and poor is as distinct as ever.
It is with the same honesty seen in his war photographs that McCullin portrays his view of the divisions in England’s society. This disillusionment is balanced with empathy and at times, wit and irony, where absurdity is as rife as misfortune. In contrast to the human tragedy he has witnessed and recorded, his landscapes reveal his deep and unwavering love for England, in particular around his rural home in the West of England. “When my time’s up on this Earth I want to leave a legacy behind of beautiful landscape pictures of Somerset.”
Through 27 April 2019