Thursday, 11 November 2010

Don McCullin - Shaped by War, Victoria Art Gallery

Engrossed in the scene of a hideous death, fear and life deserted from their blank, muddy faces, it is difficult to pull away and move on to the next photograph. Don McCullin’s Photography Exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery is a scene of shuffling, empathy sucked postures and admiration.

But no one here knows what it is like to witness these scenes in reality, or indeed, to have any true comprehension as to what it is like for the people in these harrowing photographs. It is awful to be here and yet extremely humbling and in a way, utterly brilliant. As McCullin has said: “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Don McCullin took his first published photographs in 1958. They were of the street gang he was part of, haunting the cafes and derelict buildings of Finsbury Park, where he grew up. The Observer liked his raw and honest pictures; a subjects’s inner characteristics captured by the lens.

McCullin continued to capture images of Britain, focusing his lens on the previously undocumented. The unemployed and the destitute are blown up in black and white, their woes glinting through their eyes. Their distress unmasked.

There is one picture of a late middle-aged woman in the 50s being carried off by two policeman. She is wearing a mid-length tweed coat, and holding a black, hard briefcase. Her hair is covered by a head scarf and she is wearing black, stern, angular glasses. One policeman has his arms under hers and the other is clutching her ankles. Her gaze is fixed upon the camera, her eyes defiant and there is the hint of a smile on her lips. This woman is strong and proud, the policemen scurrying around her horizontal body, in contrast, are flickering, flighty and unfocused.

Another photograph is a terrifically sad face. A man, with a neckerchief around his neck looks through the camera lens. His concern and his ‘being’ is somewhere else. The title of the picture explains the scene: 'Gypsy Watching the Police Evict his Family, Kent, 1961'. 

McCullin travelled to Berlin on his own accord in 1960 to take pictures of the Berlin Wall being erected, dividing the country like a knife. It was his documenting of this that made McCullin's international reputation. He said: “There was an extraordinary atmosphere, real Le CarrĂ©-land, but strangely, I felt immediately at home. It was as if I was wearing the right clothes.”

The remainder of the 1960's and 1970's were spent covering events of global importance for the Sunday Times Magazine, including the Vietnam war, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. McCullin’s photos capture moments that would normally be hidden from view.

There are two pictures that are particularly shocking, taken in Lebanon in 1976. McCullin was shadowing Christian Phalangist squads who were searching out Palestinian men in order to execute them. One photograph shows two men with their hands up, next to a staircase, one with a hat on, both with eyes enlarged. Their families running down the stairs, faces devoid of anything but horror at that second’s situation. The next photo below, shows the men dead on the floor. Nothing and no one else around them.

McCullin would have been stood there, where the exhibition attendee stands now. But in cold, hard, reality. What can it possibly be like to document this? Each photograph tells a terrible story about our humanity. It is impossible to articulate the emotions on the faces of the people in these pictures, what is painted on their faces is so beyond the depths of most people’s experiences. As McCullin has said: “I realised that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.” 

McCullin has wrestled with the fact that he has been witness to so many awful scenes. He describes it as a guilt and he has suffered from depression as a result for many years. Regarding the observer of his photographs and their own difficulty in comprehending the images, he said: “I want you to look at my photographs. I don’t want you to reject and say: ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures.’ Of course, they are. But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures.”

McCullin’s work has proved so painful and memorable that in 1982 he was forbidden to cover the Falklands war by the British government of the time. In his later years, he has increasingly taken pictures of landscapes. Of Somerset rivers, streams and frosted mornings. He says it is therapeutic to his wounds, like an apology for all he had seen. However, the photographs still have a stark quality. They are dark and hold the vulnerable, real quality that the war photos do.

Towards the end of the Exhibition, a striking face is hard to miss and almost sums up the feel of the whole display. It is a photograph of the face of a shell shocked US soldier, in Hue, 1968. Next to the picture is a test copy of it with post it notes attached. These are the instructions from McCullin for the development of this mesmerizing picture. ‘Darker’ , it says, indicating under the helmet, where the soldiers eyes burn into the abyss of the unimaginable. 

McCullin has said of his gloomy pictures: “I am sometimes accused by my peers of printing my pictures too dark. All I can say is that it goes with the mood of melancholy that is induced by witnessing at close quarters such intractable situations of conflict and joylessness.”
When eventually exiting the Exhibition it is impossible not to feel drained. These are incredible photos and should be seen. For all that have suffered, including McCullin himself.

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