A DAY IN LONDON WITH DON MCCULLIN
I think one of the most important things to do as an artist is to learn about other artists – one of the best ways to do this is by visiting art galleries and museums. They help us to build on new ideas whilst learning from new influences and being introduced to new artists.
One of the photographers that have greatly influenced me over the last few years is Don McCullin. From his war photography, to his landscapes and to even his still life there is something inspiring in it all – even down to how dark he likes to print his photographs which tells its own story.
On Saturday 16th February, I had the opportunity to experience his work in person through his current exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I do not think that I could truly express in a blog post how much seeing his work that has impacted so many of us for decades really felt, his work speaks so much to me – and others – not just as a documentary and landscape photographer but as a human being. It was surreal to say the least.
Before I get to the main part of his exhibition I want to tell you about the day in its self as it wasn’t just a few hours of looking at his work. It was a very long day and I want to share that with all you here.
Rising at roughly 6:15am. I caught a train just after 8am to London Euston – the chosen destination to save money costs and it was also the closest station in walking distance to BASTIAN gallery. BASTIAN gallery was the first stop, so I could visit Andy Warhol’s ‘Polaroid’ exhibit which I needed for research purposes towards a current photography project I am working on.
Arriving into London Euston at 10:50am I took the 37 minutes walk to BASTIAN. A few stops and missed corners took me a bit longer and I arrived at the gallery for 11:30am.
Although BASTIAN is a new gallery in London which opened on February 1st and is originally a gallery in Berlin which opened in November 2007, I wasn’t sure of I what I was expecting but imagined something perhaps bigger than it was, or at least more of Warhol’s Polaroids due to how many he took during his lifetime, especially as an artist that used the Polaroid as a visual diary of sorts. There was only just over 50 shown including a few self-portraits.
All the Polaroids were neatly mounted and framed. All were the same size – excluding one enlarged self-portrait.
I am not sure if it is just my personal taste and the way I view someone like Warhol and his work but I felt that the way in which the Polaroids were displayed and the gallery its self wasn’t the right fit for his work, but I know that things like this are most likely due to each one’s personal taste and how they interpret an artists work.
Either way, it was interesting to see how Polaroids could be displayed and how I wouldn’t want mine to be displayed in a few months. It helped me to grasp an idea of how I see them and how I don’t which like I mentioned at the start, is what visiting galleries and museums is all about.
I spent roughly 10 – 15 minutes in the gallery before leaving and heading to Tate Britain. I had pre-booked the tickets for Don McCullin’s exhibition for the time slot of 1pm.
The walk from BASTIAN to Tate Britain was just over 40 minutes so I had just over an hour to get to Tate leaving me plenty of time to stop and to take some photographs on the way – which I did, as well as after and I will insert them at the end of this blog.
Arriving at Tate Britain just before 1pm, I went inside taking the lift to floor 2 and headed to the right section for Don McCullin. There was quite a queue when I arrived but thankfully it moved quickly and before I know it my ticket was scanned, and I was heading inside the main room.
There was around 5 – 6 rooms of work including a projector room which projected his magazine covers full size of a wall height wise, so people could sit and view them in the highest quality. When I first headed into the first room it was packed and it only got busier. It was lovely to see people of all ages too enjoying his work, discussing his work and just taking it all in.
The exhibition went in a sort of timeline, going through each war mostly by year and places before ending on his still life and landscapes. I liked this as it gave a much clearer insight into his life and how he lived and how the people he photographed lived and how, even though many years have since passed there hasn’t been enough development to better the lives and homes of many
At every photograph I looked at, even if it was one I knew well I stood and took it in, I read every description that I possibly could. Every piece made me feel something, as I moved on to the next photograph and then the next, and the next and so on, I needed to know more. I could and still can visually imagine what the reality behind the work was like but that is all we can do and that in its self, left me feeling… empty and helpless.
But that is what I enjoy, (yes, enjoy) about McCullin and his work. It doesn’t matter what sort of work of his I am looking at; every piece tells a story and reflects some memory or feeling on to the person viewing it – just like it should and just like he wanted.
I think one of the most stand out points for me during the exhibition is seeing the actual Nikon F that was struck by a bullet in 1968, saving McCullin’s life. You can read about the things that happened and you can see photo documented evidence of certain events, but seeing the tools used to document those moments or seeing the significant things that are a part of that moment in time hits you in a different way. You become fully a part of that moment and you start to understand it better and are then able to create clearer visual in your head.
There was perhaps only one photograph I briefly skimmed as I was going through the exhibition and that was a photo which was taken in 1968 of a North Vietnamese soldier with his belongings. This photograph is the only one McCullin has ever staged and I remember writing about it in an essay on the staging and manipulation of documentary photography, a piece I did as a part of a university assignment in 2017. I skimmed it because I knew the story so well, and by this point in the exhibition the rooms were less crowded, but this image had so many people around it that I could only quickly glance at it and at the description which was a quote by McCullin on the image and how it came about.
In that same room was the image of the Shell-Shocked marine, also taken in 1968. This photograph was just crowded and most of the rest of the room was less so, this is where I took my chance to look at the items in the cabinet in the center of the room.
In this cabinet is where the Nikon F was placed, a long with his work visa/passport, compass, light meter, watch and helmet (all of this can be seen in the image above).
After the room with the video projection which I mentioned above, the exhibition led on too events in the UK; the first cases of the AIDS pandemic, UK and Argentina fight over the contested territory of the Falkland Islands, Miners Strike, Poll tax riots.
Along with specific events in the UK, there was also some photographs displayed from events in Germany; the reunification of Germany, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, socialist East Germany becomes part of West Germany to form the reunited nation of Germany.
There were also a series of documentary photographs of people he had met during his time in Bangladesh, Beirut and Iraq.
After these two rooms, the exhibition led on to the final room which featured various photographs McCullin had taken of landscapes, southern frontiers and still life.
Whilst in this room I think apart from his landscapes, it was the still life that struck me the most. His work post-war perfectly reflects the impact that all the world events and conflicts had on him throughout the years and his still life, although created to help escape perfectly reflect his trauma.
I see in his still life what I see in his landscapes. I am not going to share my thoughts here on that but if you know his work, or even if you don’t they would most likely be very similar thoughts if you did.
I remember when I viewed his landscapes in the exhibition I got totally lost in them and I quite frankly didn’t want to leave, I want to explore more of it and learn more through his work. I could have spent so much longer in the exhibition and going over all the pieces I had already seen and reflecting on things that were and things that are.
I hope we still have much more to come from McCullin, and I hope I get another chance to experience his work in person again.
I highly recommend this exhibition to everyone, it is worth seeing just to learn more about our world’s history through photography – seeing his work and documents of catastrophic life events can be overwhelming but they are also a much-needed lesson.
‘Don McCullin’ is on show at Tate Britain until May 6th, 2019.
Here are some more images which I took at the start of the exhibition:
And finally, here are some images which I took of the journey around London – these were taken between BASTIAN to Tate Britain, and from Tate Britain back to London Euston. Enjoy and I hope you enjoyed my very first blog post, feel free to leave a comment if you so wish!