Don McCullin @ Tate Britain April 2019

As I understand, McCullin is a photographer of trauma; his imagery whether concerned with conflict or landscape, is essentially about trauma. That in the end is what I took away from this great exhibition.


TATE BRITAIN: a traditional art gallery showing photography

It has taken me time to write up my two visits to this exhibition. There is so much one could explore about the context to this work as well as the implications of such photography.

As a photographer, I am struck by the style. High contrast with lots of shadow, dark and brooding prints; my technical education has often been about tackling this kind of look and making it more readable yet McCullin’s style is part of his unique oeuvre and it would be foolish to criticise this. “What about opening up the shadows?” I wrote in my notes; well this would most likely ruin the impact of these images particularly those of conflict in which truth is often a casaulty!


Visitor looking at McCullin’s prints

The prints all made by McCullin himself are of excellent quality. The occasional use of a 6×6 camera has paid off. Composition is effective and shows what needs to be shown.

I wrote further, “Is the art compromising the image quality, the need to look and see. Detail is being obscured. Unrealistic representation; not because of black and white but an emphasis on dark tonal quality ?” Although McCullin probably does not like to be labelled an artist, his work is very much an interpretation and a convincing one at that. History is more than an assembly of facts, it is about what happens in the shadows.


this poster advertising the exhibition gives some idea of the complexity of the work on show

In his more recent work made at Palmyra, a site that has suffered destruction since he photographed there, the qualities of the image seem technically improved possibly a result of improvement in photographic technologies. There is still the strong contrast though, the contrast reflecting the opposing poles that make conflict inevitable. Even in peace, Mc Cullin’s images are about war.

This is particularly true of his Somerset landscapes. As someone who has lived in Somerset for decades, I cannot help but question the dark images he makes of what is a place associated with summer. There have been floods in Somerset but mostly the area is green and rural with small scattered farms. What is not to like? McCullin comments … “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 impression one gets is that he has suffered a great deal of unjustified criticism.

Are his brooding almost threatening landscapes not a way of avoiding guilt !? His Somerset streams look like war zone trenches than waterways!


visitors to what was a crowded gallery; “Can’t see a f***ing thing, absolute nightmares” one woman remarked to me as she stormed past!

However, there is perhaps a more significant way to consider these images and that revolves around the fact they are depicting conflict in various different ways. For some, this raises ethical questions. What purpose if any does work like this serve? Might this be part of a healing of wounds? Not all images are about conflict such as some of those from India. What they do show however, is a world far removed from the ordinary lives of the kind of people likely to visit the Tate. This kind of education perhaps justifies the showing of such images which depict with a fair degree of accuracy how the other third are forced to live.


Tate Britain is beautifully constructed

My first visit was with a friend who has a passing interest in photography (he had however suggested the visit!) and the second with fellow students from the Open College of the Arts where discussion was an essential part of seeing the exhibition. Tutor Robert Bloomfield asked us to read some pages beforehand from Cruel Radiance by Susan Linfield, a work that I had come across a few years ago.

The Cruel Radiance responds to critics of photographs that depict violence as, in some cases, pornography, by pointing out that photography communicates the suffering of the body better than any other media and that this does not need to be a narcissistic identification. Some photographers such as Salgado come under attack for aestheticising violence and hence normalising it yet the kind of criticism that supports this view does not really see the whole picture. Photography does not do a perfect job in communicating such an ubiquitous underlying subject as violence yet one can not expect such unreasonableness to be reasonably portrayed. Linden is supporting the work of such photographers as McCullin rather than condemning them like many other critics whose views have become rhetorical; the idea that we become desensitised by viewing such imagery is barely questionable.


the book shop has a small library of relevant books which are also being sold along with bric a brac outside the entrance to the galleries

The visit is delayed by half an hour and so I sit in the café chatting with another student who practices mindfulness. As we are there, the actress Una Stubbs who I remember from a TV sitcom from the 1960s, comes in and sits at the table next to us.

Robert Bloomfield, our tutor for the day, asks us to consider a number of points including …

Dialectics: what you see is an objection to what is being shown

Context of shared humanity

Strong emotional context

Images related to body

Is it appropriate to show this kind of work which is often very private

Is it art!?

Photographers gaze patronising? Imperialist?

Pornographic!? Too intimate

What makes us want to look at them!?

I have answered some of these questions already.

Can war images also be subjective? Certainly selective!


Tutor Robert Bloomfield (left) in conversation with a student

After viewing the work, we meet for a cuppa and a chat about the exhibition.

Did we find the work problematic to view? The harrowing Biafra portraits were apparently made with permission! Even now, we do not know where our images might appear.
How much was Don McCullin aware of styles of photojournalistic imagery!?
Setup around dead soldier; otherwise imagery response to certain situations
A lot of information in frame
Contrast of subjects as well as light
Subjective vision; what we see depends on who we are!
Photography made during my lifetime
Hard nosed journalism!?
Landscape shot of village in mist; very dark, detail barely visible.
Many intimate photographs taken without permission
We tend to choose images that have some kind of personal relevance!


The Open College of the Arts blog about the day is worth reading. Apart from student comments, it also contains links to other sources such as Lewis Bush.



another view of Tate Britain’s winding staircase