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10 Jan 2020

Don McCullin: The Stillness of Life

At home in Somerset, Sir Don McCullin CBE talks about photographing the landscape ahead of his exhibition ‘The Stillness of Life’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. This personal survey of over 70 landscape photographs includes scenes across the United Kingdom, Europe and further afield, revealing the photographer’s innermost feelings through powerful compositions of wild heavens, haunting vistas and meditative still lifes.

Photographer Don McCullin has spent the last six decades traveling to remote locations and witnessing harrowing scenes of conflict and destruction. Often referring to the British countryside as his greatest salvation, McCullin demonstrates the full mastery of his medium with stark black and white images resonating with human emotion.

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Don McCullin, The river below my house in Somerset, Mid 1990s © Don McCullin

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Don McCullin, A farm entrance near my house in Somerset, 2008 © Don McCullin

Having been evacuated to the safety of Somerset during the Blitz, McCullin has had a lifelong connection with the open farmland and hill country of the South West, feeling at peace within the solitude of the expansive landscape. Regarded as one of the most accomplished war photographers of recent times, McCullin explains, ‘I’ve been to hundreds of places in the world, all over the globe, and it all comes back to here. I think this has become a spiritual home for me.’

‘I’ve been to hundreds of places in the world, all over the globe, and it all comes back to here. I think this has become a spiritual home for me.’

The largest body of work featured in the exhibition explores local areas within walking distance of the photographer’s home, including ‘Looking towards Creech Hill, near Bruton, Somerset’ (2019), ‘The Dew Pond, Somerset’ (1988) and ‘Batcombe Vale’ (1992-93). McCullin evokes dramatic painterly representations of his home county with quiet confidence, shifting between the flooded lowlands of the Somerset levels to woodland streams, nearby monuments and historic hill forts.

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Don McCullin, Rannoch Moor, Scotland, 1991 © Don McCullin

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Don McCullin, Liverpool in the seventies, a landscape of poverty and desolation, 1970s © Don McCullin

McCullin’s lens extends across the United Kingdom, documenting pensive rural scenes that include Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland; the River Cam, Cambridgeshire; Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, Scotland. These images are in contrast to poignant urban landscapes from McCullin’s early career in North London and visits to Northern England between the 1960s – 70s. McCullin’s honest and empathetic approach towards years of widespread British poverty, social concerns and hardship is most apparent in this body of work, highlighting a genuine commitment to communities often overlooked and the landscape in which they inhabit.

Beginning in the early 2000s, McCullin began documenting physical remains of the colossal Roman Empire in North African and Levantine landscapes, including the ancient site of Palmyra. McCullin travelled through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, returning to Syria recently to document the decimation of these ancient sites by the so-called Islamic State. This driving force to connect and reflect on sacred locations and diverse communities continues further afield across to India and Indonesia, where McCullin has documented local rituals, festivals and architecture. 

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Don McCullin, Looking forward to the valley of the tombs which Isis have destroyed, 2016 © Don McCullin

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Don McCullin, The Arctic North of Norway, 2019 © Don McCullin

‘The Stillness of Life’ includes never-before-seen Arctic landscapes captured by McCullin in 2019 during a trip to Svalbard. This journey was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to immerse himself in this ever-changing hostile and isolated environment. Seeking to convey the mysterious and mystical quality of the light in this part of the world, this evocative series presents us simultaneously with overwhelming beauty and reminds us of the fragility of our natural environment.

‘Nothing ever stays the same in life. You find a place you really love and think it’s going to stay like that forever and it won’t. You must always expect change.’

For McCullin, the landscape is a living subject. His photography engages the energy of the land—its history, character and expression—documenting it on film and paper. He reflects, ‘Nothing ever stays the same in life. You find a place you really love and think it’s going to stay like that forever and it won’t. You must always expect change. I look out at the landscape and I can see it’s only been formed thousands of years ago by volcanic activity, and it’s man who’s come along and he’s shaped the landscape according to his needs. All I’m doing is falling in line with time now, by recording what’s there.’

‘Don McCullin. The Stillness of Life’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Somerset 25 January – 4 May 2020, following McCullin’s major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019, traveling to Tate Liverpool in June 2020.

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