In Manchester today I explored retrospectives of the work of two very different photographers, Don McCullin and Dorothy Bohm.  At the Imperial War Museum North, there is Shaped By War, an outstanding exhibition about the life and work of Don McCullin, now 75 years old. It’s the largest show ever mounted of his work, many items on public display for the very first time, both photographs and personal items from his years as a war photographer.

Don McCullin with one of his images at Imperial War Museum North

One of the images, Hue, February 1968, of a US marine suffering severe shell shock waiting to be evacuated from the battle zone, is displayed within McCullin’s notes to the printers at the Sunday Times on how it should be reproduced: ‘This print should be much darker’. McCullin preferred to work in black and white, and you see very clearly from this exhibition that the prevailing tone of his work – right through to his most recent English landscapes – is of darkness visible.

Hue, Vietnam, February 1968: A US marine suffering severe shell shock waits to be evacuated from the battle zone
Hue, Vietnam, February 1968
Somerset, 1991
Somerset, 1991

There’s always a question that hovers when you’re looking at McCullin’s war images: are you guilty of voyeurism, gazing at a terrible form of pornography? Don McCullin has wrestled with these questions throughout his career – and ultimately his personal resolution was to withdraw from conflict photography.  But the exhibition quotes him as saying in 2009:

“I want you to look at my photographs.  I don’t want you to reject and say: ‘No, I can’t do that.  I can’t look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures.’  Of course, they are.  But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures.”

Two photographs I had not seen before stopped me in my tracks.  They are displayed side by side and were taken in Lebanon in 1976, when McCullin was shadowing Christian Phalangist squads who were searching out Palestinian men in order to execute them. We see a stairwell.  In the first image, Palestinian women are fleeing down the stairs, whilst below the steps we can just see the men, huddled and awaiting their fate.  In the second image, the stairwell is deserted except for the bodies of the dead men at the foot of the stairs. Dear god, what must it do to you to be there, behind the camera the whole time, in order to document an atrocity for the rest of us.

In 1964 he won the World Press Photo Award for this photograph of a Cypriot woman whose husband has just been killed. Her face captures the grief of war,  but it’s her son’s outstretched hand that completes the story, a child seeking both reassurance and to reassure.

Cyprus, 1964: A grieving woman and her family
Cyprus, 1964: A grieving woman and her family

This image reflects a shift that took place in McCullin’s war photography.  He has spoken of how, through being constantly in the company of soldiers, his images ‘harped too much on the glory of the battlefield’. But once he realised that ‘the people who were picking up the real price of war’ were the civilians, the focus of his work shifted to the civilians, ‘always the last people to be told that it was coming to them’.

‘There are pictures here that I could say I was ashamed of. I was in the Biafran war and I was in a school that was designated as a hospital, and I saw 800 dying children. There was one particular boy there: he was an albino and he was staring at me and I thought, I wish he wouldn’t look at me because he was really unnerving me.  So I went away, and I was talking to one of the doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, and suddenly somebody touched my hand and he was holding my hand.  I thought I was on the verge of really crying…’

Don McCullin is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest photographers. For 50 years his photographs have shaped our awareness of modern conflict and its consequences. For myself, his photo stories for the Sunday Times colour magazine in the 1960s – a golden period when the paper was edited by Harold Evans – were seminal. The exhibition pays close attention to McCullin’s period with the Sunday Times – and his falling out with the paper after the Murdoch takeover.

The exhibition is excellent at setting McCullin’s work in context. It is arranged in five sections: early years, discovering photojournalism, the Sunday Times magazine, changing times and a new direction.

“Like all my generation in London, I am a product of Hitler. I was born in the 30s and bombed in the 40s.”

McCullin’s early years were difficult, at times violent. He was born in Finsbury Park, north London in 1935, and his earliest memories are of the second World War and its consequences, air raids, evacuation, fear and deprivation.  For him, the disruption to family life and education had lasting consequences. In his teens McCullin fell in with the violent gangs who dominated north London in the early 1950s.

The Guv'nors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958
The Guv’nors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

His first  published photographs, in The Observer, were of The Guv’nors, a gang he was close to at the time. These look rather staged and artificial, the one above almost like an album cover.

Working first for The Observer and later the Sunday Times, McCullin was particularly drawn to the major conflicts of the day. His career developed rapidly from photographing Berlin in the 1960s without assignment to his award winning coverage of the civil war in Cyprus in 1964. In 1965, he made his first of many visits to Vietnam,  carrying out his first assignment on the Vietnam war on behalf of the Illustrated London News.  For the next 18 years, McCullin specialised in covering conflict and war.

Shaped By War: introductory Imperial War Museum video

On the web there are two slideshows of images from the exhibition: one on from the BBC Today programme and one at The  Guardian. Update: an extensive article, A life in photography: Don McCullin, appeared in the Guardian on 22 May.

Don McCullin in Conversation with Paul Herrmann, director of Redeye Photography Network

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

The exhibition concludes with examples of McCullin’s recent work with Christian Aid in Africa. He has returned to photographing the extremes of human circumstances in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Zambia and South Africa.

‘You do not go away from here without carrying a huge burden, if you are a decent human being and you have a conscience.’

In 2000 McCullin travelled to Southern Africa to record people and communities living with HIV/AIDS.  To mark World AIDS day 2004 McCullin went back  to see what had changed 4 years on, and find some of the people he had met before. His photographs became a new exhibition called ‘Life Interrupted’.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France, 2000
The Battlefields of the Somme, France, 2000

Dorothy Bohm: A World Observed 1940 – 2010

Paris 1953
Paris 1953

‘Having lived through times when human dignity was debased, moral values soiled, I find that I seek to portray the dignity of man, the harmonious relationship of people to their environment.’

There’s a very different mood to the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, A World Observed 1940 – 2010, the first major retrospective of the photographer Dorothy Bohm, who was born in Königsberg, East Prussia in 1924, and has lived in England since 1939.

The exhibition opens with a selection of Bohm’s work as a student at Manchester College of Technology (from which she graduated in 1942) and of the portraits she produced while working first at Samuel Cooper and then, from 1946, in her own Studio Alexander in Market Street, Manchester. By the late 1950s she had abandoned studio portraiture for street photography.

‘I photograph the humble, the anonymous, who are spontaneous and mirror all of us.’

“The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful and retains something of the special magic, which I have looked for and found. I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.”

Like the McCullin exhibition, there are displays here of cameras, notebooks and other items relating to Dorothy Bohm’s work, including a complete replica darkroom demonstrating the almost forgotten technique of black and white photographic processing: the second exposure with an enlarger, the bottles and trays of developer and fixing liquids, and the clothesline pinned with drying prints. This brought back memories of waking up some Sunday mornings to find my father doing the same thing in our tiny back kitchen.


2 thoughts on “Don McCullin: Darkness Visible

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