Sir Don McCullin’s images reflect a grim portrait of the Twentieth Century. From Biafra to Beirut, Cambodia to Congo the renowned war photographer seemed to traverse the final few decades of the Millennium in a dot-to-dot of suffering and violence. Yet there’s more to McCullin’s work than simple brutality; there’s beauty here too, often in the most unlikely circumstances. The images in the exhibition are, in themselves, beautifully composed and developed. McCullin has a director’s eye and a journalist’s instinct.
The photographer’s early work, shot in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was creeping across Germany, demonstrates his understanding of light, shadow and silhouette. Developed by the photographer himself, the moody monochrome shows a Berlin still in the grasp of the devastating Second World War, with buildings wrecked and inhabitants that look stuck in the 40s, two decades earlier. It’s reminiscent of the contemporary work of Carol Reed or Alfred Hitchcock. There’s humanity and humour but also deadly intent as West and East clash in a tiny area of the city.
Images of post-war England are bleak reminders that much of the country has similarly shattered by war – and grinding, almost Victorian, poverty were the lot of many. The homeless of London; the industrial north. A famous image of a man in Hartlepool, heading into a hellish landscape of blast furnaces reflects the everyday hardship of life at the sharp end. From the images present in this wide-ranging exhibition at Tate Liverpool it’s not immediately obvious who were the victors of the second great 20th-Century war.
But there’s wit and warmth too. McCullin’s images of Jean, a homeless woman in east London, reveal the humanity of the dynamic. A still of her hands, cast in chiaroscuro, is a rare pause in the odyssey of horrors. A Bradford matriarch wielding a spade even raises a chuckle.
Yet for the most part McCullin’s images form a dot-to-dot of the late 20th Century’s most notorious hot spots: his very own atrocity exhibition; a ‘fast conveyor belt of troubleshooting’. The Christians celebrating the death of a young Palestinian girl; the starving albino Biafran boy; the wife weeping on her dead Turkish husband’s chest. By the time you approach new sections titled “Cambodia” and “Vietnam” your enthusiasm for further images of suffering may be waning.
McCullin’s simple but vital curation – only a small minority have any accompanying captions – might even reflect our exhaustion. “Did I need to face this yet again?,” he asks rhetorically, recalling another trip to yet another disaster zone. We might echo his helplessness. Perhaps we might feel that owe it to McCullin – and to the unfortunates in his photographs – to take it in, to reflect and understand. Perhaps the bare minimum we can offer is to look, just as all McCullin could do was to record.
McCullin’s journey through the war-torn world has surely left its scars. Indeed he says as much. It suggests that a career that was once a dream job devolved onto something else entirely. A calling. A duty. A compulsion. We might see catharsis in his most recent landscape images – Hadrian’s Wall, the countryside near his Somerset house. But even here, he admits, there is darkness.
His images of the now-destroyed city of Palmyra indicate that McCullin still feels an obligation to his role of chronicling our world, perhaps a penance. Saving something beautiful for posterity too, rather than a grisly record of the 20th century.
We might once have thought McCullin’s images of war, natural disaster and lethal poverty would be consigned to the Twentieth Century. With climate change, nationalism and sectarianism rife throughout the world they stand as an important record but also a chilling reminder – and perhaps a portent.
The images in the simply-titled Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Liverpool are important, but terrible. To take in every image becomes something of an endurance test. If you make it to the end without having become numbed to the images of brutality and suffering then in McCullin’s eyes your humanity has survived intact.
Either way McCullin’s images will endure. One hopes that his spirit has too.
Until 9 May 2021
All images © Don McCullin