The Don McCullin retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019 included many of his most impactful photographs captured over a 60-year career. On display were his iconic war photographs from Vietnam and Northern Ireland as well as images from England recording scenes of poverty and working-class life.
Walking around this exhibition inevitably gave one a deep sense of unease. Not only are you viewing images of the grim actions humans inflict on each other, any thinking person cannot help but feel guilty at the voyeuristic nature of the situation they find themselves in. Is it right to have paid to enter an art gallery to look at so much human suffering?
Is it, as Susan Sontag says, that “ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death” but “the pity and the disgust that pictures inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown“.
Do we all have a ‘duty’ from time to time to expose ourselves to such images so we don’t become numb to the horrors war inflicts on innocent people? Is an art gallery the place to do this however? Images of the type taken by McCullin were usually intended to be published in newspapers. Maybe Sontag was right when she said, “pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being ‘properly’ lighted and composed“.
However you feel about this issue it came as something of a relief to enter a room at the Tate Britain show where the more “meditative landscapes” of McCullin’s home territory of Somerset were on display. As McCullin says:
“…the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions of dying children because I was beginning to take those memories to bed with me at night and having terrible dreams and terrible nightmares and feeling guilty and waking up in a sweat and that’s wasn’t doing me any good so, to stand in the English countryside with my camera I’m harming nobody.“Don McCullin
Setting aside the issue of whether it is right to display images of war and atrocity in an art gallery, it is clear that McCullin has been seriously affected by the events he has witnessed throughout his career. Fortunately, he can now take solace in his “English countryside” by creating images that help him banish those nighttime memories whilst creating beautiful works of art.
Inspired by McCullin’s landscapes, more of which can be found in his beautifully printed book The Landscape, for the past few years I have been capturing my own landscapes in a part of the world not too far away from McCullin’s Somerset. Here are some of my images, rendered as black and white, in the style of, and inspired by, McCullin’s fabulous landscapes.
McCullin of course, as well as being an outstanding photographer is also a master printer and printed all 250 photographs for the Tate Britain exhibition in his own darkroom. I cannot begin to imagine how many hours this must have taken him! All of my images have been rendered in black and white using Nik Silver Efex from DxO Software.