Saturday, 19 November 2011

Don McCullin War and Landscapes

  Two exhibitions running concurrently in London provide an excellent overview of the work of Don McCullin. At the Imperial War Museum, Shaped by War lays out his conflict photography thoroughly and towards the end touches on other aspects of his career. At Hamiltons Gallery "Platinum" focuses on his post-conflict work, a collection of landscapes, still lifes, architectural pieces and African tribes beautifully printed for the first time using the platinum process.

  Don McCullin is famous for his war photography and in Shaped by War we follow his path around the world and the different conflicts and countries he visited. He was young and driven and showed a restlessness whenever he returned to the offices of the Sunday Times. He was happiest with his trusted kit on a plane off to do what he did best. It was non stop – Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Bangladesh, The Middle East, El Salvador. He was also lucky, many of his colleagues were killed especially in the Far East. McCullin took a round in Vietnam but his loyal camera took the force and he largely escaped injury. Apart from falling through a roof in El Salvador after which he was hospitalised, the physical injuries were light.
As the demands of newspapers and magazines changed, editorial decisions were beginning to weigh against McCullin, he found stories were delayed in publication, he threatened to quit and eventually the magazine parted ways with one of their greatest photographers. McCullin had time to ponder and as he did so his past started to catch up with him. Mental scars that up to then had remained hidden emerged. Bereavement, relationship breakdowns and the suffering he had seen all combined to leave McCullin exposed and mentally frail. He wrote in the last paragraph of his autobiography “I’m alone in my house in Somerset. The ghosts in my filing cabinets sometimes seem to mock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars” The demons in his head needed exorcising and it was through photography that process began. Venturing out of his cottage with a camera he photographed the English landscape and it is through this work we can see those ghosts and his mind processing the past, the present and perhaps his future. He also found familiarity with the landscape at Hadrian's Wall and at the battlefields of France, photographs which placed war in context of history and memory.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France 2000. Photography by Don McCullin. Courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery.
There are echoes of other worlds and other peoples in his Somerset photographs. Water filled ditches, mangled trees and thick vegetation act as a backdrop which mirrors what he saw in Vietnam and Cambodia. The fields are shrouded in greyness, melancholy and a pervading timelessness which tries to see a way forward through the mist of painful memories. 

Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum until 5th April 2012.
Platinum at Hamiltons Gallery until 29th November 2011.

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