The photographs are stunning, of war and poverty and suffering mainly, all in black and white and accompanied in each of the ten display rooms by a revealing quote from the photographer who took them – Don McCullin.
McCullin who is 83 now but still working, grew up in a deprived part of north London and got his break with a picture of a gang, all mates of his, posing and looking cool inside an old house that had lost its frontage. Published by The Observer, The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, marked the beginning of his career in photo-journalism that would make his famous and take him all over the world.
Working for The Observer and then The Sunday Times, McCullin covered the wars in Vietnam, the Congo, Cyprus, Beirut, Biafra and Northern Ireland among others, courageously taking many famous images illustrating the pity of war.
While he is best known for his war photography, he has also consistently engaged with social issues at home, documenting poverty and working class life in London`s East End and in the North of England.
And from the 1980s he has turned his camera towards the countryside in Britain, taking landscape pictures of the Somerset levels where he lives.
More recently he has been documenting the physical remains of the Roman Empire in the North African and Levantine landscapes, and last year he returned to Syria to capture the deliberate destruction of monuments in Palmyra and elsewhere by Islamic State.
McCullin continues to work with film, printing his own pictures from negatives in a darkroom. This gives him a control over the final print, often dark and contrasty, with the eyes of the subject highlighted, that is not possible with digital machine prints. The black and white prints, all 250 of them in the exhibition and all printed by McCullin, seem to accentuate the drama and intensity of the picture that would be lost, or partly lost in colour.
All credit to Tate Britain, in Central London, for hosting this exhibition in a place normally reserved for fine art. Don McCullin, Tate Britain, until 6 May 2017.
Some of the quotes from Don McCullin displayed in the exhibition rooms
Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about.
No one was my enemy, by the way. There was no enemy in war for me. I was a totally neutral passing-through person.
I couldn’t do without the magnetic head-on collision I keep having every time I go out with my camera in England. It`s become a crusade – just walking for hours, day in, day out, with the camera bag over my shoulder
The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.
I don’t believe you can see what’s beyond the edge unless you put your head over it. I’ve many times been right up to the precipice, not even a foot or an inch away. That’s the only place to be if you’re going to see and show what suffering really means.
I want people to look at my photographs … Often they are atrocity pictures. Of course they are. But I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures. I want the voice to seduce people into actually hanging on a bit longer when they look at them, so they don`t go away with an intimidating memory, but with a conscious obligation.
Those colossal Roman stone structures from 2,000 years ago filled me with awe, then it dawned on me how they were achieved. Through cruelty. through wickedness and slavery. The staggering accomplishment was the product of brutality
I used to get letters from people saying they wanted to be a war photographer, and it annoyed me intensely. If you want to be a war photographer, go around the cities of England where you will find all the social wars.
Just because I’m 83 doesn’t mean to say I have to sit here waiting to die. I’m still open to discovery.