Book review: 100 Photos de Don McCullin

My bookshelves are full of photography books. I thought it would be worth reviewing some of them, as they give me a lot of pleasure, and as the longer nights approach, I can see myself returning to many of them over the coming months. Here’s the first, from one of my favourite photographers…

Don McCullin’s professional life has several ironies in it.

Recognised as one of the UK’s leading photojournalists, he failed his photographic theory test while serving in the RAF, and was unable to become an RAF photographer. This led to him spending his national service in the darkroom.

Although he won many prestigious international awards for his work, and was honoured with a CBE in 1993, he was refused permission to cover the Falklands war by the British Government, and entry to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war.

It is his ability to capture the human-scale experience of world events that has made his work so potent, and revealed the tragedies behind the headlines.

Making his own destiny

The Guv'nors

The Guv’nors

McCullin’s first-ever published photograph, The Guv’nors, captured a gang from Finsbury Park, London, outside a dilapidated house. It was first published in the Observer in 1958 after a policeman was murdered by one of the gang members. McCullin later flew to Berlin in 1961 on his own initiative to photograph the building of the Berlin wall, which resulted in him winning the “British Press Award” and getting a year’s contract with The Observer. After covering the civil war in Cyprus in 1964, and winning the 1965 “World Press Photo Premier Award”, he covered the civil war in the Congo, which after being liberated from Belgian rule, was torn apart by ethnic conflict.

In 1966, McCullin joined The London Sunday Times Magazine, a relationship which lasted two decades and saw his photos covering famine in Africa, the Vietnam war and conflicts in the Middle East, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Uganda (where he was banned for life by Idi Amin) and El Salvador published amongst the glossy weekend ads, waking British people on a Sunday morning to the plight of the rest of the world.

McCullin’s reputation had spread beyond his peers by 1968 – The Beatles even requested a photo-shoot with him, where he captured some great moments between the band members.

This is England

Despite being best known for his photography covering conflict and crisis abroad, Don McCullin returned to England between these world events to document the lives of the poor and socially disadvantaged in his home country. He spent a lot of time in the North East of England, amongst the poverty of working families in the mining and steel industries. I can relate to a lot of these photographs, as I spent 17 years living in the area, and despite four decades having passed, much of the social disadvantagement he shows is still present today.

Early Shift

Early Shift

Sentenced to peace

I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And 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.
– Don McCullin

Towards an iron age hill fort

Towards an iron age hill fort

100 Photos de Don McCullin covers his career, with some of the best examples of his work across all subjects. Many of the images are sad, some express hope, all are moving. The lustre finish to the pages suits the, at times gritty and distressing, documentary style in many of the photographs. But his work isn’t without moments of joy. The young Teddy boy at a dance, the Beatles larking about and a young couple dressed up to go out all feature in this book, and show another side to the world McCullin has witnessed. Highly reccommended.

All photographs in this article are copyright Don McCullin.

Don McCullin Interviews

There is a great BBC interview with Don McCullin on the BBC website
A BBC audio slideshow of Don McCullin.

Don McCullin books

100 Photos de Don McCullin pour la liberté de la presse is available from Amazon UK, but alas, does not seem to be on the US Amazon site at this time.