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Don McCullin – Photographer

If you are British and interested in photography along with David Bailey and probably Lord Litchfield you will have heard of Don McCullin. McCullin is undoubtedly Britain’s most celebrated war photographer, there have been many others, a number sadly now gone like Tim Hetherington, but McCullin is the one we all know. His story is from a poor and under privaleged background, not something that can be said of many of the greats of the photography world, to international recognition.

There is a most excellent exclusive interview by Colin Jacobson in the BJP called Shaped by War: Don McCullin in profile here

“An interview with Don McCullin is never going to be a dull affair. He is a complex man who has told the story of his life many times before. He is unfailingly polite and gentlemanly, but one detects a slightly weary tone as he goes over the familiar ground. He often pre-empts the questions with clinical self-awareness.

The story of McCullin’s rise from the impoverished backstreets of Finsbury Park in north London to becoming one of the world’s best-known photographers is one of fortuitous good luck…..
McCullin, who was becoming a bit of a tearaway, started taking photographs of ‘The Guvners’, a local gang. It happened that one of these hoodlums killed a policeman. McCullin was persuaded to show a group portrait of the gang to The Observer. It published the photo and this led to his burgeoning career as a photographer for the newspaper.”

“That gang picture was the ticket to rest of my life,” he reminisces. ‘£5 was the cost of my life as a photographer – that’s what my mother paid to redeem the camera I had pawned.”

In 1964, The Observer asked if he would like to cover the civil war that was hotting up in Cyprus. McCullin was elated. It was his first real foray into a conflict zone and the photographs he produced were remarkable, arguably still some of his finest work. They catapulted him into the international arena of photojournalism.”

Harold Evans, editor of UK’s The Sunday Times, recounts an incident that took place during a routine firefight in some nondescript zone of conflict in some obscure corner of the globe. People were screaming, gunfire was rattling, everybody was running and ducking for cover…and Don McCullin stopped long enough to take an exposure reading. Afterwards he said, “What’s the point of getting killed if you’ve got the wrong exposure?”

“Harold Evans, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Times during the period of McCullin’s finest magazine work, places him alongside Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and Philip Jones-Griffiths as one of the greatest war photographers ever.”…..

“Rand feels that the plight of the poor and dispossessed brought out the best in him, and Evans agrees, telling me, “He cared about the victims, the ‘collateral damage’. He couldn’t express it in words but he expressed it in his photography.”

McCullin himself attributes his capacity for empathy partly to his own harsh childhood, including some miserable experiences when he was evacuated during the war. Nevertheless, McCullin now seems ambivalent and uneasy revisiting those heady magazine days.”

As you can see this is a wide ranging and excellent interview, as is so often the case with the BJP, if you would like to read more here is the link

Body of a North Vietnamese soldier, Hue, Vietnam, 1968 (c) Don McCullin, courtesy Contact Press Images Europe

“I came across the body of a young Viet Cong soldier. Some American soldiers were abusing him verbally and stealing his things as souvenirs. It upset me – if this man was brave enough to fight for the freedom of his country, he should have respect. I posed him with his few possessions for a purpose, for a reason, to make a statement. You see, I’d developed a mind by then, I was my own man and I’d got attitudes. I felt I had a kind of puritanical obligation to give this dead man a voice.”

………………….In these later days of his life, McCullin is preoccupied with the landscape and nature around him in Somerset. He has described his love of landscape as “herbal medicine for my mind”. He is scornful about fame, comparing it, tellingly, to a “smelling body”, but is honest enough to admit he enjoyed it when it came to him in the past. He says he has not become rich out of photography, but is rich in lifestyle, taking spiritual energy from his life in the countryside.”

Here are just a few of the books he has produced of the years, this link takes you to the Amazon pages for Don McCullin
Further reading, articles and videos

 John Tusa  BBC Radio Interview with Don McCullin

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