Don McCullin at the Tate

I always feel a little irked when a museum or gallery levies a charge to enter certain areas of an otherwise free to enter establishment. It irritates, probably more than it should, especially when the entry fee feels excessive, and for the same reasons that I won’t pay inflated “event” parking charges at the O2, or use the public lavatories at London Victoria train station, I’ve occasionally dropped plans to take in an exhibition due to what, to me at least, appears to border on profiteering by the venue.

Now, I have no problem with a venue covering its costs with a nominal entry fee. A well known “name” showing in a well known setting may well see me parting with a tenner to get through the door, but I work long and hard for a moderate salary, so I want value, and that includes the cost of getting to and from the venue.

What I don’t fully understand are the fiscal forces that decide which exhibitions are free, and which might command what level of entry charge. In recent years, I’ve paid to see the Ansel Adams show at The National Maritime Museum, and Sebastiao Salgado’s “Genesis” exhibition at The Natural History Museum. Both were excellent, memorable and enjoyable, and I’m grateful that I got to see the work first hand, well presented in a gallery setting. But I’m unable to imagine what factors decided that those two warranted an entry charge, yet the historically important and sumptuously presented works of Julia Margaret Cameron shown at the V&A and The Science Museum were free to view. This ever will remain a mystery to me.

Anyway, by and by this preamble leads us to the Manton Entrance of Tate Britain, where I, having paid the aforementioned tenner (+60%… that’s inflation for you!) for a timed entry ticket, have come to see Don McCullin’s sizeable retrospective.

This exhibition represents six decades of McCullin bearing witness to the worst of humanity. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, as the visitor travels through the gallery rooms from late 1950’s London to 2017’s exquisite “Southern Frontiers”, taking in the uncertainty of 1960’s Berlin before dropping the viewer straight into the war zones of Biafra, Cyprus, Republic of Congo, Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s gut-wrenching stuff, brutally honest in its depiction of the human cost of armed conflict. On show here is the famous Nikon F, replete with bullet hole. A sobering reminder of just how close to the edge the photographer would go.

The next two rooms bring us back home from combat in faraway lands, but respite from hard-hitting subject matter is not yet at hand. In “The East End” McCullin turns his lens towards the men and women living on the streets of East London, dispossessed and forgotten, left homeless by the march of capitalism. This is the result of privatisation and the unswerving search for profit… The poorest of the poor, paying the price of progress. Passing through the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland, where sticks and stones, riot shields and billy-clubs gave way to bullets and bombs. “The Troubles” seems an understated title for a period that saw over 3500 lives lost to political and sectarian violence.

We’re about halfway through, and really need a little lift now, and a brief smile is provided as “British Summer Time” takes a look at the humour and eccentricities of daily life in England, akin to the work of Tony Ray-Jones or early Martin Parr, although in true McCullin style, social inequality bubbles still, just beneath the surface. That social inequality is writ large in “Bradford and the North”, where the mood darkens once more as McCullin focusses on the loss of traditional heavy industry in the north. Communities left impoverished and neglected by the state as the government of the time followed policies of deindustrialisation.

Passing through the projection room, showing McCullin’s numerous published magazine spreads and covers for The Observer and The Sunday Times Magazine, much of it in colour, we find ourselves back in the wider world, witnessing more hostility, civil war, ethnic tension, displacement, refugee camps, starvation and disease from the formation of Bangladesh, through Beirut, Iraq and Southern Ethiopia to the Aids pandemic across Africa.

Renowned for his darkroom skills as well as his expertise with the camera, every framed print in this show (and there are in excess of 250) has been painstakingly printed in McCullin’s darkroom by his own hand. That in itself is a considerable undertaking, especially when the images must trigger some seriously dark memories for the man. And dark is a word often used in conjunction with these images, in both their appearance and subject matter. Indeed, McCullin is well known for producing dark “heavy” prints, entirely in keeping with the often grim subject matter. It’s fascinating to see how much lighter the images are portrayed in the magazine spreads, compared to the prints. McCullin seemingly wants us to see and maybe try to understand what he saw.

Misty dawn images from India showing elephants bathing in sacred rivers, sailing boats, and holy festivals share a room with those describing ethnic conflict in Southern Ethiopia and the effect of AIDS on communities across Africa. The difference in treatment and subject matter in this room is stark, portraits are more sensitive, whilst still illustrating humanitarian crises.
It’s as if we’re being led from the darkness gently back into the light, as we pass through to the final room. There are no scenes of horror here as we’re refreshed before rejoining the world. McCullin has had his fill of conflict and barbarity, so now points his camera towards more tranquil subjects. The landscapes of his home county of Somerset, as well as those slightly further afield, the quite beautiful Southern Frontiers series on Roman ruins across North Africa and the Middle East, and classically arranged still life studies are still printed dark, with brooding skies and deep, deep shadows, maybe due to McCullin’s admitted inner guilt over a lifetime of bearing witness to (and walking away from) the worst attrocities imaginable.

Almost 3 hours spent looking at hard-hitting documentary photography is a big ask. This is a big exhibition by anyone’s standards, but well worth the time in my opinion. Don McCullin’s name is not new to me, having bought a couple of his books in the past, including his autobiography “Unreasonable Behaviour”, and seen a number of magazine articles and documentary films about him, I was already aware of his work and his story so this exhibition held few surprises for me, but that’s largely besides the point. The opportunity to see so many iconic images first hand, printed by the photographer, so you’re seeing the work exactly as he wants it seen… that’s worth sixteen quid of anybody’s money. All in all a five star show.

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