The Tate gallery might seem an odd place for an exhibition of a 20th Century photographer’s work, but there are two very good reasons why the current one works very well there. The first is the sheer quantity of work on show. A venue like the Photographers Gallery in Soho might be able to display a few dozen at best; the Tate exhibition offers room after room, organized thematically, with nothing hung outside a comfortable eyeline and leaving plenty of room between individual photographs so that every one is treated as an item in its own right.
But the main reason is the sheer artistry and significance of McCullin’s work. Unsurprisingly, we knew of him best for his breakthrough work capturing the Teddy Boy gangs of north London, in particular the iconic ‘Guvnors of Finsbury Park’ shot, with its subjects arrayed arrogantly across the upstairs floor of a bombed out house. Within days of that photograph being taken, a policeman was stabbed to death in a gang fight on the Guvnors’ patch, and McCullin’s shot was seized on by the daily papers to illustrate the story, catapulting him into the front line of photo reportage where he would stay for the next half a century.
The strength of McCullin’s work is in his determination to maintain neutrality in any situation, but to let the photographs tell the story – and what stories. From photographing his London neighbourhood, he quickly found himself in his first war zone – conflict in Cyprus in the early 60s. His shots from that time hallmark his future style – respect for his subjects, a commitment to photograph only what he saw – not what he could manufacture – and a willingness to put himself in the line of fire to capture the reality of the moment. The latter was clearly evident in one shot of a group of Turkish Cypriots attempting to drag the corpse of their comrade from the street while taking cover behind a corner – taking cover from a threat that must have been directly in McCullin’s view as he took the shot. The same conflict also illustrated McCullin’s ability to achieve an unspoken consent from his subjects, even when in the depths of grief, as they recognised that the quietly respectful photographer represented the best chance of telling their story to the outside world.
And the conflicts kept coming, each with its clutch of iconic shorts we’ve all seen a hundred times – Vietnam in 1968, Northern Ireland in 1970, Cyprus again, Cambodia, Biafra, right up to the Gulf Wars of the 21st Century. McCullin’s Vietnam work in particular highlighted his ability to tread the tightrope of neutrality; embedded with a US Army unit, his shots at the same time captured the agonies of young men in conflict in a land and for a cause that few would understand, with the inhumanity that the situation could engender in the same men. That included the only photograph where McCullin confessed an element of staging – gathering together a dead Vietcong’s possession, cast aside by the GIs looting his corpse, to demonstrate that the enemy, too, left behind families and children. His wars are not the glamorous ones beloved of re-enactors, but the real ones where tired and dirty men in misshaped fatigues and laden with the paraphernalia of combat stare at the camera with unseeing eyes; where the grenade-thrower with an Olympian stance will moments later become the cripple as a gunshot demolishes his hand.
Even harder to look at were McCullin’s photographs from African conflicts, and the starvation that they visited on the civilian population. Again, his ability to capture the gamut from hope to despair to resignation lifted the work above mere photography. Closer to home, his shots of daily life in Bradford of the 1970s and East London of the early 80s painted a picture of people with their stake in society long lost, ekeing out existences in an alien landscape – in the one case of oily, black, coal-poisoned ground, in the latter of decaying litter-strewn derelict streets now gentrified and being absorbed – minus their residents – in the maw of City development.
Reflecting McCullin’s own struggle to step away from the scenes he has recorded throughout his career, the exhibition ended with his most recent work, based around his home in Somerset. Although bucolic in subject, even those displayed his eye for the dramatic and strong contrasts in his composition. Indeed, most of the photographs in the exhibition had been printed by McCullin himself, working on the same images time after time to extract the maximum from the original negative even years after the original was created.
Few photographers can have captured so much in a career – one could hope in vain that few would ever need to. No surprise, then, that this exhibition has run for a long time with consistent popularity. Sobering in content, and humbling in its artistry, it is a signal event, and will hopefully inspire a new generation of photographers to follow in his footsteps.
The exhibition only has a couple more weeks to run so, if you’ve not seen it, time is passing quickly! Details are on the Tate’s website.
All pictures taken from other internet reviews of the exhibition.