Don McCullin at the Imperial War Museum – REVIEW

don mcCullin cyprus

Low Light and Black and White

Walking into the Don McCullin retrospective at the Imperial War Museum, London, is to enter into a space of black and white, slanting walls, low light and a whole host of film rolls, letters, passes, cameras, passports and boots documenting Don McCullin’s life in the field and beyond. Don is widely recognised as one the greatest living war photographers, he has seen conflict all over the globe, shooting on commission for the Sunday Telegraph, Observer and more until Murdoch took over The Times and all editorial control and freedom of style and coverage seems to have been clipped… (no comment, ed.).  Don kick-started his career with shots of his mates, gang members in Finsbury Park, and you can see right from day one, his ability to shoot a story with just one image will be what continues to set his work apart, and remains (although it sounds a cliche) an inspiration to so many photojournalists in so many fields of photography.

don mccullin hand grenadeThe Theatre of War

It’s brilliantly curated, and takes you on an emotive journey from Cyprus to Africa, from Finsbury Park to Vietnam. You feel compelled to tread softly through the human debris and black and white filmic emotional pleas Don captures in his photography. For decades Don has bore witness to some of the most atrocious deeds man can inflict on another.

There is an interactive map showing the world; when you touch the screen large black and white rectangles filled with Don’s images sending documentary and human shrapnel scattering through your imagination.

don mccullin landscapeInterview

In a small room, with hard seats, is an interview with Don on loop. He talks about his earliest days and experiences in London, through Cyprus, Vietnam and then into Africa and his passion and release in his landscapes of the dark satanic, but ravishingly beautiful, Somerset Levels. The reflections, the spectral trees, the hills. It is noticable that in these his personal work, there are no people. Just landscape, and you feel solitude, calmness, safety.

Vietnam Shell Shocked Soldier by Don McCullin

To edit or not

There’s a big debate now, how true is an image? When most of us process our images in Photoshop, adjusting the contrast, balancing the lighting, bringing out details in shadow, we are still met with punters who don’t really get it. “Argh, how can you.. didn’t used to happen in film days…”  Of course it did! Retouching the movie stars, balancing images for front covers of magazines, highlighting tones on the broadsheet headline image… again, seeing Don’s own post-it notes all over his iconic image of the shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, with instructions to the picture editor to “burn in” to “highlight” certain areas, for me, makes it all the more an important entry into the debate, surely it’s about the image, it’s about the shot, its about capturing the emotion, the one moment in time. There is hardly nothing you can’t correct in post now, and when the whole debate is are we photographers or digital manipulators, I would argue that as photographers we have always been involved in some mechanical process, which is creative (whether this is dark-room enhancement or digital retouching) to bring the image to it’s full glory, which is more often than not, closer to the truth anyway.

don mccullin famineI used to want to be a war photographer, I think being a woman I would be leaving myself open to a lot of heartache and physical risk, which in turn would affect my parents (who are close to me) and I think this was one of the reasons I didn’t pursue it. So I’ve turned my hand now to the theatre of entertainment. You know, I thought it was odd, as I was going round the exhibition there was something that was hammering away at me. It’s the, and I use the term descriptively not tritely, theatricality of war which Don captures. It’s his ability to story board an event, a seige, an attack, the wounded, the air lift, the bombing. While I’m not able to go into the field, I have always admired Don’s work: the ability to make a difference with one image, to story tell through 2D, to inspire, to lead and stand by journalistic principles. If I could live my life again, I would probably do the same again, but there’s always something nagging at me to use my skill as a photographer to make a difference. This year I’m addressing that, and thanks to this exhibition, it has helped give me that push to make sure I keep my eye on the target.

This entry was published on January 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm. It’s filed under arts, people, Photography, Review, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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