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Don McCullin, Britain’s knight-errant photographer, measures the reach of a career

by Randy Kennedy
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Don McCullin, World War I battlefield of the Somme, France, 2000 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, one of the most revered British photographers of his generation and among the most relentlessly globe-trotting (Vietnam, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Biafra, Zambia, Zimbabwe, only to scratch the surface) was just back home in the English countryside after a vacation, or what passes for one in his life.

‘We were in Sri Lanka, my wife and I—but I was photographing, of course,’ he related by phone on a late January afternoon. ‘The jet lag really laid it on me. I’m about to be 84, after all, you know. But I’m fine now.’

For more than three decades, McCullin’s roosting place between assignments has been a low stone cottage overlooking a rolling valley in the Somerset heathland of South West England, which he knew first as a child, evacuated there from his impoverished north London home during the Blitz. In his darkroom, off the kitchen, he continues—as he has throughout a career of more than half a century, with The Sunday Times Magazine and dozens of other publications—to print his own work, an obsessive, perfectionist exercise he has described as ‘being hand-in-glove with madness.’ And in the last year, he has wrestled with his darkroom soul as mightily as ever before in his life, preparing for a retrospective at the Tate, which continues through May 6, the museum’s first-ever survey of the work of a living photographer. ‘There’s something like 260, 270 prints in the show, all made by me’, he said, adding dryly, ‘The walls will be fairly groaning with what I’ve done.’

Widely celebrated in Europe and in his homeland (he received a knighthood in 2017) but still underrecognized in the United States, McCullin said he was particularly gratified that such a commemoration of his work was coming from the Tate. ‘I’m nearing the end of the road, so to say, in my evangelistic crusade to show the world. So it’s very good right now for me to be there, to be here.’

The occasion has given him an opportunity, he said, to think about why he became a photojournalist—he resolutely rejects calling any of his work art—and why he put himself repeatedly in extreme danger to document war, famine, crime, poverty and refugee crises around the world.

‘I’ve come to think part of it is about fear—I’ve been dealing with fear my whole life, since I was a child. Around Finsbury Park, where I grew up, if you wandered accidentally around the wrong corner, to a part of the neighborhood that wasn’t yours, you could get a nasty beating, you might get your face slashed with a Stanley knife. A camera was like Icarus’ wings to get myself out of that place. But I’ve always felt a kinship with people who have little and live in fear.’

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Don McCullin, On the way to the slaughter house, early morning, near Caledonian Road, Islington, London, 1965 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, The Somerset Levels below Glastonbury, England, early 1990s © Don McCullin

He said he hoped that his work—whether of hand-to-hand combat, of a dead bird noticed at his feet on a morning hike, of a flock of sheep being herded to an abattoir on a foggy London back street—has always carried a sense of moral urgency. But he added, looking back over the most wrenching of his images, ‘I feel I’ve spent a lifetime covering wars—60 years—and I don’t think for one second that my work helped to stop any war, or ever will. As soon as one is finished, another one starts. It’s just what we humans do.’

For a man with no formal schooling beyond the age of 15 (‘My first job was in a steam train as a skivvy cleaning up in the dining car’), he said he considers himself especially lucky that his life has provided him with an education in the form of traveling with writers—John le Carré, Bruce Chatwin—and spending time among artists and filmmakers (in 1966 he was hired by Michelangelo Antonioni to produce the park ‘murder’ still blowups for ‘Blow-Up.’)

‘I feel I’ve spent a lifetime covering wars—60 years—and I don’t think for one second that my work helped to stop any war, or ever will.’

Now at least semiretired—he hasn’t been to an active combat zone in several years—McCullin said one fundamental lesson he has drawn from returning again and again to places he has known is that poverty, violence and corruption often have partners in the destruction of unique places and valuable cultures: tourism and development. ‘There’s a war just in protecting the very village where I live, against real-­estate companies who’d happily destroy it because, unfortunately, far too many people, want to live in beautiful places.’

For many years now, when not traveling and sometimes when he is, McCullin has turned his efforts to landscape photography, focusing intently on the unbuilt earth—attempting, he says, to take a longer view, toward the end of his own life, of the life of the planet. ‘I’ve been trying to get the perfect photograph of a lovely group of trees not far from here. It’s eluded me for years. I well might never get it, but it’s going to snow tomorrow, so maybe that will be what I need. I haven’t given up hope.’

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Don McCullin, Anti-fascist demonstrator protesting against a National Socialist Party rally, Trafalgar Square, London, 1962 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Dassanech tribe, Omo Valley, southern Ethiopia, 2003–2004 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Catholic mission food distribution, civil war, Biafra, Nigeria, April 1968 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, U.S. Marines with a captured civilian suspected of being a North Vietnamese sympathizer, Têt O°ensive, Battle of Hué, Vietnam, February 1968 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 AD most likely to separate Roman Britannia from the barbarian north, Northumberland, England, 2008 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Turkish militia leaving the side entrance of a cinema, Limassol, Cyprus, 1964 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, American car owned by a local West Indian boxer on Fonthill Road, Finsbury Park, London, 1963 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, British peacekeeping soldiers transport the bodies of Turks killed by Greek militia, Cyprus, 1964 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, An anti-fascist demonstration at a National Socialist Party rally, Trafalgar Square, London, July 1962 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, U.S. Marine hurling a grenade seconds before being shot through the left hand, Têt O°ensive, Hué, South Vietnam, 1968 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Ancient Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, 2006 © Don McCullin
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Don McCullin, Temple of Bel after destruction by Islamic State militants, 2018 © Don McCullin

‘Don McCullin’ is on view at Tate Britain in London from 5 February – 6 May 2019. The exhibition surveys the last sixty years of the prolific photographer’s career, moving through the East End, Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Syria, and includes over 250 photographs printed by McCullin in his darkroom.

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