JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black-and-white photographs, matted and framed and exhibited on four walls in the main gallery (as well as on three walls in the recessed space on the South), on three walls in the smaller East gallery, and on three walls in the narrow West corridor. All the prints are gelatin silver, signed and dated between 1961 and 2006-09. Only 3 are designated as vintage, although 17 of them from the 1960s and ‘70s were printed close to (circa) the time the negative was made. The majority are sized 20×24 inches, with those printed in the 1960s much smaller (6×9 to 8×11 inches.) (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The lives of war photographers aren’t usually long—or dignified—enough to enjoy the official tributes accrued by Don McCullin in this decade. To list only some of the accolades bestowed on the 83 year-old since 2010: honorary degrees from the University of Bath and the University of Essex—despite his having left school at the age of 15; a pair of 100 picture-plus retrospectives, the first at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the second at Tate Britain; critical praise for the update of his highly regarded autobiography, Unreasonable Behavior, originally published in 1990; and the right to call himself Sir Don McCullin, after he was knighted in 2017. (He must be used by now to Her Majesty’s government laying honors on his shoulders; in 1997 he became the first photo-journalist awarded a CBE.)
The Howard Greenberg Gallery, with its long-standing commitment to photojournalism, is a fitting place to evaluate his achievement. More selective than his retrospectives, this show of 50 prints nonetheless spans almost his entire career, from 1961 to 2009. The two main forces that have shaped him—the many conflicts and splintering offshoots of the Cold War; and his attachment to the urban and rural culture of England—are well represented.
Although the majority of the shots here were made with 35 mm. Nikons, the earliest one is a square-format image made in West Berlin with a Rolleicord (his first camera.) Dated 1961, soon after the Berlin Wall had gone up dividing the city, it presents a sideways glance at two American soldiers crouched in a doorway near Checkpoint Charlie in the American Zone. McCullin placed his camera next to the pair, at ground level, so the point of view could encompass the cobblestone street in the foreground, the trouser leg and shiny boot, machine gun, and cartridge belt belonging to one soldier, along with a distant group of German pedestrians. One of them is a young woman. Swinging her arms as she walks toward the camera, she is the object of the men’s attention. Even if McCullin’s isn’t overtly imitating the film noir angles and lighting favored by Robert Krasker in his cinematography for The Third Man, the photograph carries similar Cold War currents of repressed sexuality and violence.
Guns figure prominently in McCullin compositions, including one with a caption more chilling than what’s depicted in the photo. In the Congo during one of its civil wars, he observed a young man in a beret aiming his rifle at the back of a prisoner. This captive is an even younger man. Dressed in rags, he winces as the rifle muzzle pokes into his neck and averts the gaze of the photographer. The title reads: “Congolese Soldiers Tormenting Captured Lumumbist Freedom Fighters Before Killing Them, 1964.”
McCullin began as what he called “a-war-a-year man” which soon became “two-wars a-year” and then “three.” He has spoken and written frankly about the adrenaline rush that he and his fellow photojournalists commonly feel as they make their way to combat zones, a feeling that many have likened to a hit from a potent drug. He has described the qualities he possesses as “the balls of a commando, the cunning of a rat, the eye of an artist, the anger of a man with his eyes open so that anger finally threatened to consume him.”
Following the lead of Robert Capa, McCullin wants to show us that bloody battles are usually local, fought with weapons brought from home, and in neighborhoods and yards where during more peaceful times adults strolled after a meal and children played until sundown. He was in Cyprus during its Greek-Turkish civil war in 1964, and took a memorable picture of a grieving Turkish woman whose friends try to console her, to no avail. Amidst a group of Turkish fighters huddled in the street, on edge and concentrating on what’s happening beyond the frame, McCullin spotted a large dog that stared at him with stoic equanimity.
Wars obliterate daily routines and replace them with incongruous bits that don’t fit together as before. McCullin acknowledges this with a grim sense of humor. During the 1976 civil war in Lebanon, he photographed a Christian fighter kneeling and watching for incoming fire while sheltered in a destroyed Holiday Inn in Beirut. McCullin stood far enough back to notice the absurdity of the scene: an elaborate chandelier hanging over the man’s head and the abandoned information desk.
He built his reputation in the 1960s for his willingness to upset newspaper and magazine readers by unflinchingly showing them the savagery of war, especially cruelty inflicted on non-combatants. Not included in this selection is an iconic image of an emaciated albino child taken during the 1967 Nigerian civil war, when Biafra attempted to declare its independence and was punished by the Nigerian military with a campaign of starvation.
McCullin’s most reproduced photograph may be the 1968 portrait of an American Marine at the battle of Hue during the Vietnam War. McCullin photographed him straight on, looking straight at the camera. The man’s expression is icily calm. In other circumstances, he could be seen as the model for impassive soldiery. The giveaways that something else is going on inside his head are the tense shoulders hunched forward, the dead eyes under the lid of the helmet, and the hands clutching his rifle as if it were the only thing holding him to the spot. The caption reveals that the soldier is not unflappable but shell-shocked.
Northern Ireland was a place where McCullin did repeated volunteer tours in the 1970s. One of his photographs of the street warfare in 1971 shows bell-bottomed, rock-throwing youths, hiding behind improvised barricades; in another, from the same year, six British soldiers charge down a street, burnishing riot shields, guns, and batons, while two terrified women cower in doorways. He is as good at capturing action—the moment when a soldier whirls to throw a hand grenade—as he is at dramatizing the tense moments between bouts of fighting. It is a badge of honor for photojournalists to run afoul of the authorities in countries where they are trying to report on the realities of war. Philip Jones Griffiths was despised by the South Vietnamese government in the late 1960s. McCullin was feared by the Thatcher government for his Northern Ireland pictures and was banned from covering the Falklands War in 1982.
His qualms about the ethics of his profession have only increased the longer he has been away from conflict photography. He seems skeptical that images of carnage have lasting policy impact and worries that he was doing his job more to satisfy his own curiosity, competitive needs and addiction to excitement than to help sound the alarm about people in distress. “I take more than I bring,” he has said. “That’s not a role I’m proud of.”
In the first edition of Unreasonable Behavior, he declared himself retired from war photography, only to reveal in the updated edition that he had been lured back to the front lines of Syria in 2014, at the age of 77. The photographs he brought back from there did not meet his usual high standards, according to his stern judgment. The ones he has included in the show—of the classical ruins in Palmyra, shrouded in shadow, empty of people—don’t give us clear and reliable information. We can’t tell looking at the columns shattered and strewn on the ground what was destroyed by ISIS in 2013-16 and what the Romans did to the city in the 3rd century CE.
To alleviate the dolor that has followed him from his war years, he has for the last couple of decades been photographing landscapes in Somerset. Several of these are in the show and demonstrate a Wordsworthian belief that contemplating nature, and fixing it in a poem or picture, can heal what ails the soul. McCullin deserves his respite and is entitled to a Romantic finale. Surveying work from his early years, it’s clear that his affection for England and its people is a through-line in his life. In a photograph from the ‘70s, a long shot of five children silhouetted against a coal slag heap in County Durham, he captured from afar the legs of each child bent at a different angle, as if they were doing a collective jig down a polluted hillside in a place that has been killing others like them for generations. They are in a kind of war zone, and don’t know it yet. McCullin knows it. Few have seen first-hand the worst of what life has to offer.
Collector’s POV: Prices range from $6200 for non-vintage prints to $31500 (the highest being three signed vintage prints with Magnum Photos stamps on the back.) McCullin’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $35000.