You know the shot: American soldier, thousand-yard stare, gripping his rifle with both hands like it’s not just his weapon, but his last line of defence, his rosary beads, his only friend. That’s by Don McCullin, a war photographer, an archetypal war photographer. That’s how most would describe him, but McCullin doesn’t like the term, and after covering some of the toughest and most brutal conflicts on the planet he has spent the last decades trying to purge some of the horrors burnt into his retinas. His tool of choice? The same one that put them there in the first place – his camera. So that thousand-yard stare is not present here at the Tate, nor any other shot from Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, or Africa.
What we do have are photographs roughly split into the following sets:
Berlin 1961, around Checkpoint Charlie
“…I went straight to Friedrichstrasse where the tension between the Americans and the Russians and the East Germans were really… the build-up was enormous and there were tanks and armoured vehicles from both sides facing each other, it was very serious.”
That tension is obvious, but I think the strongest aspect to these images is the response of civilians to these soldiers – their curiosity, their defiance. There is one particularly great photograph, shot from an ankle-high perspective, showing a foreground solider’s boot and machine gun, a middle ground soldier’s gaze, and its subject in the background of a local woman striding away.
“What I tried to do was I tried to draw those people into my vision, I tried to make myself unimportant in the presence of such people and I tried to let their eyes meet my eyes.”
Eye contact is what makes the strongest of these images work. Some of the more typical street scene shots are perfectly fine, but it is the penetrating portraits, framed tight with a fairly long telephoto, that really stand out.
1980s industrial North England
“…these pictures show the cost of being a great powerful industrial nation but at the same time someone had to suffer and that was the English countryside.”
There is great compassion for the countryside shown in this set. By making use of human foreground subjects McCullin neatly draws attention to the scale of the industrialisation behind, and to the proximity to those who have to push their prams in the shadows of these chimneys and cooling towers.
“…the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions of dying children”
Can you tell if a landscape was photographed by a man who has seen war? This last set of images makes a strong case this is so. The tonality of these prints I find both unusual and hard to decipher. Contrast is not low, but there is no grasping to reach the extremes of the tonal scale. The greys are a heavy lead-silver-graphite mix. McCullin’s lens seems to linger on the earth and under the foliage as if searching for signs of a battle. Do these photographs primarily proclaim: ‘look at this landscape, untouched by human blood’? Or perhaps we the viewers subconsciously overlay these fields with the corpses and spent ammunition we expect from a war photographer, and their absence becomes the subject of the photograph?
You can take the photographer out of the war, but you cannot take the war out of the photographer.
My only minor gripe with the show is the image order runs right-to-left (chronologically at least), and I’ve always preferred to tackle a gallery left-to-right. Also, one sequence of three East End photos with obvious visual links (implying being taken maybe five, maybe 60 minutes apart) would better have been served by the strongest frame alone. But ultimately, it is a wonderful single (large) room of photographs, presented in an exemplary format, with a range of subjects and high quality throughout.
The show is on at Tate Britain until 4th Marth.
The quotes were taken from this TateShots video, McCullin speaking of the show.
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