Don McCullin Exhibition – Tate Britain, London

If you happen to be in London before the 6th May and have an interest in photography then I can highly recommened you visit this superb exhibition. Even if you think photography isn’t your thing, then just go along anyway – it’s that good.

Given the disturbing nature of many of the photographs on display; they include graphic pictures of war, poverty, famine and conflict, it is difficult, if nigh on impossible not to be moved by what Sir Don McCullin has captured over many decades as a photojournalist. Nor will you be using words such as ‘lovely’ or ‘enjoyable’ to describe your visit but these are the very reasons to go and not stay away.

What follows is a summary of my visit and a few personal thoughts. I have included a selection of images (photography for personal use is allowed) coupled with McCullin’s quotes to give you a flavour of what the exhibition at Tate Britain has to offer.

You may well be familiar with the work of Don McCullin if you have looked at his images in books or online, but seeing his own hand printed photographs takes the viewers experience to whole new level. These are beautifully crafted black and white photographs made by him in his darkroom at his home in Somerset. Even though some his photographs are truly harrowing to look at, there is unquestionably an artist at work who in my opinion brings a certain beauty to the most tragic of subjects. In so doing he makes the images even more intense and poignant. These are photographs that once seen live long in the memory.

Above – Perhaps one his most iconic images – ‘Shell-Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue’. This widely publicised photograph depicts an American soldier, clutching onto his rifle in a state of quiet distress amid the carnage of the battle to retake Hue City. This battle is remembered as one of the toughest in the Vietnam War. The soldier’s intense expression, staring into the middle distance beyond the camera’s lens, shows the deep personal impact of the war on many individuals.

Below – His first photographic assignment for The Observer in 1964, when he was sent to document a period of polictical conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

“The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, bu they would certainly say the same thing”.

Above – The camera body which saved his life during a trip to Cambodia in 1974.

“No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much diginty as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it still doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the consceine of others who can help.”

Another iconic image (above) which captures the desperate plight of a starving mother and child in Biafra in 1968.

One room shows a series of images of magazine and newspaper articles from previous decades. How one man has been able to witness, capture and endure so much tradgey in a liftetime is just extraordinary.

The two images above – The troubles in Northern Ireland.

And below – Many of the photographs in the exhibition capture life in Britain particuly during the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. This one of an elderly couple in a cafe in Bradford is one of my favourites.

When McCullin is not being a photojournalist he turns to landscape photography. These too are ‘dark images’ and best explained by McCullin himself in the quote below.

“So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt becasue I was able to walk away while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another may with a gun. And that I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

I did ‘enjoy’ his landscape photographs but they are not as memorable or as though provoking as his other work. ‘Don McCullin is widely known as a war photographer but the exhbition makes it clear that this title haunts him’. Quoting the exhibition itself it goes on to say that ‘He has never been content with the impact made by the images he has produced. He feels they have had an insuffient role in ending the suffering of the people they depict’.

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you are looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Perhaps in a small way this exhibition will do something to address these concerns, although I do have to admit to feeling rather quilty when I walked out of the exhibition and straight into the restaurant for a rather tasty lunch. I don’t know but I would like to think that some of the proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to a good cause. Just a thought.

There are about 250 photographs in the exhibition and I together with a friend took the best part of 3 hours to look around. This is a ticket only event and whilst you can buy tickets on the day I would advise booking online in advance and taking advantage of a small discount.

I don’t go to London very often. I am not a fan of big cities, there are too many people and getting about using public transport is not what I would call pleasurable. This is either because of overcrowding or delays and I experienced both! It can also be an expensive day out. Travel costs, exhibition entry, eating and drinking all add up. Why is this relavent I hear you ask? Well I will only go to London if I truly think it’s going to be worthwhile. Seeing this exhibtion of Don McCullin’s work was worth every penny – in fact I am thinking I will go again! Just superb.

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