There is a moment in Jacqui and David Morris’s exceptional documentary McCullin (2012) when the veteran photographer reflects on one of his photographs, ‘A Turkish Cypriot woman mourns the death of her husband at Ghaziveran, Cyprus’ (1964). He recalls how many times, in conflicts all around the world, he would see the same sight; grieving families looking to the sky, pleading to god though the heavens appear empty. When Henri Cartier-Bresson saw McCullin’s work, he compared him to Goya; an artist that came back into McCullin’s mind as he gazed at the bereft Cypriot widow, her moment of despair captured for posterity.
The photograph is there in Tate Britain’s stunning and extensive retrospective on McCullin. Goya is there too, given many of these photographs seem a modern incarnation of the Spanish artist’s chilling series of prints ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Both are a succession of images that almost defy belief in their brutality – famine, torture, murder, grief. Both are pointed and resigned, bitter and stoical. ‘A heroic feat! With dead men!’ Goya notes next to a scene of dismemberment. McCullin says the same without words, in some of the most powerful images ever taken.
The exhibition charts his course chronologically, beginning with McCullin’s working-class roots in Finsbury Park in the 1950s. McCullin was immersed in that world of hustling teddy boys, edgy girl gangs, hedonism and casual violence over status and territory. It shows in the intimacy and access of his early photographs. He has always been much more than ‘just’ a war photographer, though conflict and menace are rarely far from the surface. McCullin almost instantaneously made his name with his remarkable shot of ‘The Guv’nors of the Seven Sisters Road’ (1958) for The Observer; a photograph halfway between Russian Constructivism and some long-lost garage band album. At a nearby café, he shot a friend or adversary firing him a gaze that is simultaneously threatening and endearing, and you sense McCullin already navigating dangerous waters.
McCullin’s superlative compositional talent is evident throughout his six decade-long career, right from that shot of the Guv’nors inside the frame of the ruined house. It is there too in his image of a protestor at Whitehall in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, sitting in front of a row of policemen. The figure is zen-like but also absurdly parochial while the police line is broken in an off-kilter way. There is something almost burlesque in his shots of youths in Derry rioting against the British Army. The look of shock in the lady’s face in the doorway as the soldiers charge past. The insurgent teenagers dressed in their Sunday best. It is theatrical, as all conflict is, up until the point of autopsies and funerals. McCullin is there where it begins and where it ends. One of the most bitter lessons from his work is the abject absence of justice, and how the retribution that takes its place can entrench a vicious circle of violence and misery.
The theatrical element continues through his early work, though it is deceptive at times. His portraits of homeless Irish people in Spitalfields capture a remarkable cast, staring at the lens like crazed gods or demons, when really they are just people cast aside. His photographs are compassionate and voyeuristic, establishing a tension that would reverberate throughout his life. Entire worlds have been lost or pushed away since then, given how surreal and cinematic it now seems to view horses delivering beer at the Docklands in 1962 or sheep being herded to the slaughterhouse near the Caledonian Road in 1965.
Possessing a keen eye for where the action was, McCullin went to Berlin, just as the Wall was being built. Compensating for a cheap camera, he used inventive angles to frame American soldiers gazing across into East Berlin, mirrored by people on the Communist side, gawping like tourists as they gradually disappear behind bricks and barbed wire. There is something otherworldly and dystopian in his view of Soviet border soldiers with their long capes yet McCullin is lucidly devoid of ideology, demonstrating the damage they all inflict.
The great theme of McCullin’s work is not war necessarily but the people who are swallowed up in it. His bravery is astonishing and yet if there is a heroism here it is manifestly anti-heroic. He pictures a gallant partisan dashing from a doorway during the civil war in Cyprus only to counteract it with a scene of utter futility, framing the shoes of Turkish bodies piled up anonymously on top of each other. In the Congo, we are presented with the sight of men and boys about to die, living out their last seconds in dull terror. ‘The fighting I encountered’ McCullin notes ‘was vicious and cruel, and on the whole evil men prevailed.’ There is no trite moralism here but unflinching and raw honesty, not without a stark terrible beauty at times but one without consolation.
Vietnam followed. McCullin went there 16 times. He was there at the death of cities, as his articles put it at the time – Phnom Penh, Beirut. The relics of his journeys are contained in a glass case in the exhibition. His helmet, his passports with visas stamped on them, a light meter, a watch, and his Nikon camera with a bullet hole in it. It was blind luck that he survived. Why he went is a question permeating everything. In Beirut, he photographed ‘Young Christian Youth Celebrating the Death of a Young Palestinian Girl, Beirut’ (1976). It is a crazed scene, with musicians celebrating over a corpse, more akin to apocalyptic medieval carvings than the modern world. The horror of Goya again springs to mind, and the title of one of his prints, ‘I saw this’.
Biafra was the hardest by McCullin’s admission and perhaps these are the hardest images to view. He has stated this was the moment everything changed for him. The machismo, glamour and ego fell to pieces when he entered a place where hundreds of children were dropping dead in front of him. A sense of moral duty kept him going but the almost unbearable nature of the photographs from this time are troubling. To find empathy in the midst of such grotesque horror might seem futile. To find beauty might seem callous. McCullin’s work is indisputably anti-war but the photographer in him cannot help but frame shots in ways that look dynamic. You get the sense of gazing upon masterpieces that are also crime scenes.
For all his canonization, McCullin’s work rests uneasily, as well it should. It is clear he is a heavyweight singular talent and a profoundly decent and courageous human being. Yet there is something not quite right in the way we view such sights, shuffling around deferentially before making our way through the gift shop or idly flicking through a Sunday supplement. Perhaps it is an intractable problem. Perhaps it is not one we should easily absorb. Neglected in the age of Rupert Murdoch, McCullin is now dangerously close to becoming a national treasure, heralded by the same establishments that sent men to their deaths, and the locals of distant lands to theirs.
Perhaps McCullin’s legacy is not just empathy and conscience but rage; rage that the things he has captured are still occurring right now; rage against those who continue to inflict misery on the poor and most vulnerable, the distance from which they do so, and the profits which they reap. It is a testament to McCullin’s power, integrity and talent that his work is not simply a collection of masterpieces but also obscenities. Why he took them is a question that weighs on his mind. What he took is something that should weigh on ours. ‘This is how it happened’ went one of the titles of Goya’s Disasters of War. And it happens still.
Main image: Don McCullin, Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968. Courtesy; Don McCullin