I’ve always had a pretty good ‘eye.’ For example, I could spot a decent bargain when buying stock for either my second-hand stall or later for my clothes shop and, I’ve always been keen on photography. I have selected many a photo purely for the photographic quality and then only later, find out the work is by some famous ‘snapper’, when in truth, I didn’t have a clue as who the photographer was.
As a case in point, I remember seeing a photograph that I now know is called ‘The Guvnors.’ It shows a group of young men in Teddy Boy garb, standing in the shell of a derelict house in Finsbury Park in 1958. I just fell in love with that image, which I found in an old magazine one day on my travels. As was my way back then, I sellotaped it to my work locker, during my early days in the print in the early 1980s.
It was only many years later that I discovered it was taken by the legendary Don McCullin, when I saw an exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery or similar in the 1990s.
McCullin always came across to me as a serious, complex, but fascinating man. I guess when you have been in as many perilous situations as he has over the years, it will leave a mark on you in one way or the other.
‘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.’
Born Donald McCullin in the St Pancras area of London on October 9th 1935, he grew up in Finsbury Park. He was evacuated to Somerset during the Blitz of his home city and upon his return a few years later, showed an aptitude for art that won him a place on a scholarship at Hammersmith
School of Arts & Crafts. He achieved this despite suffering from dyslexia.
‘They thought I was skiving. I took some terrible hidings from sadistic, Victorian schoolmasters who were the last of that legacy.’
He was unable to take up his place, due to the death of his father when Don was only 15. Instead he left education and worked on the then steam railways, washing up in a dining car, until he began his National Service with the RAF.
He worked in a darkroom during much of that service and bought his first camera when stationed in Nairobi. Short of money however, when back in London, he pawned it, only for his mother to pay for the pledge and get the camera back to him. It was with that, that he took ‘The Guvnors’ photograph that I mentioned at the top of the page.
The gang were then implicated in a murder of a policeman and Don’s photo was submitted to, and subsequently published in, the Observer as part of the case. It was much admired, and he earned a further commission from the picture editor Bryn Campbell, paving the way for him to take up the profession full time at the age of 23.
He worked extensively overseas for the Sunday Times covering various big stories and conflicts around the world, including the erecting of the Berlin Wall, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the horrors of Biafra, being in the middle of a war torn Cyprus, as well as Cambodia, Afghanistan and perhaps most famously Vietnam.
There, his Nikon camera deflected a bullet that was meant for him whilst east of Phnom Penh, only to then be injured in a mortar attack a few days later. Though badly injured, McCullin continued to take photos of those also afflicted around him.
‘I am a professed atheist, until I find myself in serious circumstances. Then I quickly fall on my knees, in my mind if not literally, and I say: ‘Please God, save me from this.’
Away from the battlefield, other highlights of his career include taking the photographs used in the Antonioni film ‘Blow Up’ and then following the Beatles around in 1968 on what became known as ‘A Mad Day Out’ during the recording of the ‘White Album.’
In more recent years he has worked in Beirut and all over Africa, though he was famously denied access to the Falklands War, believing the Thatcher government feared the political edge his images portray.
‘I have risked my life endless times, and ended up in hospital with all kinds of burns and shell wounds. I have those reptile eyes that see behind and in front of me. I’m constantly trying to stay alive. I’m aware of warfare, of hidden mines.
He was awarded the CBE in1993, the first photojournalist to earn such an award. In more recent years, since moving to Somerset, to a house near to where he was evacuated, he has worked mainly on landscapes and portraits, including many of the homeless in London. The urge to travel is still within him however. He was in Syria in 2018, to document the destruction left behind by ISIS.
‘I need a challenge. My greatest fear is sitting and staring out of a window without the passion to do anything anymore. Photography has given me a life. The very least I could do was try and articulate these stories with as much compassion and clarity as they deserve, with as loud a voice as I could muster. Anything less would be mercenary.’
In late 2020 it was announced that Angelina Jolie would direct a biopic on McCullin, based on his autobiography ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’ with Tom Hardy playing the lead role. I also recommend a great documentary on him simply called ‘McCullin’ from 2012.
As I do often with these blogs, I’ll leave the last word with the talent.
‘I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’
That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers.
I am sentencing myself to peace.’
The Mumper of SE5
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