To coincide with the major retrospective at Tate Britain (5thFebruary – 6thMay 2019), Hamiltons celebrated Sir Don McCullin’s lifetime achievement and decades of collaboration with Hamiltons by 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.
Between 1966 and 1984, McCullin worked for The Sunday Times Magazine when the newspaper was at the cutting edge of investigative, critical journalism. “It was the Rolls-Royce of journalism,” recalls McCullin in an interview for Le Monde* last year. During this period, McCullin’s assignments included Biafra, the Belgian Congo, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, Bangladesh and the Lebanese civil war. His photographs of Vietnam and Cambodia have become among the most famous images of those conflicts.
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.”
In more recent years, McCullin has continued to travel internationally, photographing new work in locations such as India, Syria and the African continent, where he documented the AIDS crisis. One of his most ambitious journeys has been to explore the ruins of the southern Roman Empire, a project that spanned over a number of years, and is documented in McCullin’s book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire (2010).
Recently, Sir Don McCullin was awarded a knighthood in the 2017 New Years Honours list and Tate Britain opened a major retrospective of McCullin’s work, 5thFebruary – 6thMay 2019. Following the huge success, Tate Liverpool has announced the opening of a McCullin retrospective, 5 June - 27 September 2020. McCullin has been awarded numerous awards over the years, including two premier Awards from the World Press Photo and the 2006 Cornell Capa Award by the International Centre for Photography in New York for his lifetime contribution to photography. In 1993, he was the first photojournalist to be made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He is the author of more than a dozen books (mostly published by Jonathan Cape), including his acclaimed autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour (1990), updated and published again in 2015, and his Don McCullin: The New Definitive Edition retrospective, published the same year. In 2011, alongside Hamiltons’ exposition of his platinum prints, the Tate Britain presented a solo exhibition comprising a wide selection of his subjects, and the Imperial War Museum displayed Shaped By War,featuring over 250 photographs, contact sheets and personal memorabilia. McCullin’s work has not only been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, but is held in various museum collections around the world. McCullin is today recognised as one of our greatest photographers.
“In contrast to the countless images where the protagonists are reduced to anonymous figurines that serve the photographer to frame the shot, McCullin gives an identity and flesh to the people he prints on film, even when he captures them in full flight, in action. To capture a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson would say, is a prerequisite of a reporter. McCullin does this marvellously in Cyprus in 1964, at the time of the civil war, a story with which he won his international notoriety, or in Northern Ireland in 1970. In Vietnam, too, in the middle of combat. Each time, the men, women or children who appear in the frame carry a physical burden; we grasp what they feel. They exist.”
Alain Frachon & Michel Guerrin forLe Monde*
Video of Don discussing his work for Sky News at Hamiltons here: youtube.com/skynews
*Guerrin, Michel & Frachon, Alain. "Les guerres de Don McCullin" Le Monde, 15 -19 August 2018, various pages.
A suite of articles written for the summer edition of Le Monde by Michel Guerrin and Alain Frachon, journalists with Le Monde.