McCullin is a documentary by Jacqui and David Morris, released on DVD in February 2013. The documentary can be found on YouTube (2015).
A mix of film clips, still photographs, McCullin talks about his career and some of the events he photographed. Having read his autobiograph Unreasonable Behaviour this was a chance to hear the man talk about the events he’d witnessed and the feelings he’d expressed.
I’ve read a number of books containing McCullin’s work so it was fascinating to see images I’m familiar with alongside others that I wasn’t.
Time 100 Photos included the image of the albino child in Biafra amongst their selection of the most influential photos of all time. Hearing how it made Don McCullin feel and how he’d tried to avoid the child by going elsewhere, only to find the child had followed him when he felt a hand take hold of his, was fascinating. With only some boiled sweets on him McCullin gave the young boy one and he hurried off, stopping a distance away to lick it.
In the same way, the image of McCullin, Egomonsters (2013), carrying the old woman is expanded upon. Seeing the old woman being helped along a road by a British soldier, McCullin took a photograph of her. Unable to walk very quickly, even with the aid of two sticks there was a risk that she would be killed before she could reach safety. Putting his camera away McCullin scooped her up and carried her to safety. Another photographer captured his actions.
A lot of times photographers, McCullin included are simply viewers of events, there to document what is happening for both history but also so that other people can view the events from safety and distance (both in miles and days, months and years).
At times, as demonstrated in the above examples and the description from the documentary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; where other photographers did “point and shoot” trips but McCullin immersed himself for two weeks in the thick of the action, photographers become part of events and aren’t able to just be onlookers.
In today’s world, where almost everyone carries a camera with them, it is easy to see how simple it is to be an onlooker. Social media is filled with videos showing events unfolding, the people capturing those events being just an onlooker. Viewing events from the other side of a screen.
McCullin, through his work and career, demonstrates that although as photographers our purpose is to capture images, we are also human beings and once the camera has stopped clicking become just another part of events happening around us.
Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, Somerset have an exhibition running until May 7th 2018. What they describe as a survey exhibition looks at the “contradictory nature of society’s relationship to the rural”.
The exhibition contains the work from 1500 to the present day, using a variety of mediums including sculpture, paintings, photographs as well as a lot of others.
The exhibition has been curated by Adam Sutherland who is the Director of Grizedale Arts. He has brought together the work of people from Beatrix Potter to Grayson Perry, Edward Calvert to Mark Twain.
Interspersed amongst the artworks are farm implements, cheese making equipment pottery dating back to 1500, books, medals, tapestries, quilts and even a white plastic garden chair.
The exhibition is mainly inside the building but there are a few works outside. For instance in the Cloister is an interesting piece by Marcus Coates called Uniform for Apple Service Provider. This piece represents a padded jacket with a hood and is made up completely of different types of apples. As this piece is outside and apples having a tendency to rot over time it would be interesting to return in a few months to see whether rotten fruit has been replaced or whether everything has been left as it is.
The exhibition is fascinating with so much to see. Living just over half an hour away I’m sure that I’ll be popping back to have another look before it closes in May.
The one negative about the day was that it was difficult to going through the exhibition because although each of the items was numbered and a description was included in the List of Works, there were very few descriptions with the actual items. There was also a lack of labelling for the rooms. The Threshing Barn had a nice label above the entrance so you could easily work out what each of the items were in the room. After that it became a lot more difficult to figure out where items were in the catalogue, especially as in each room the numbering of the items in the room restarted from 1.
There were far too many works to cover everything so I’m going to cover a few of those that stood out for me.
As you enter the Workshop part of the gallery you find Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman [Reference 1]. This etching is very interesting. Areas that correspond with counties are named Fears, Cliche, Myth, Dreams. Areas that correspond with towns and villages have names like G-Spot, Fear-Of Failure and Calm. The level of detail is incredible. Unfortunately the etching is positioned above the door as you enter the room, which makes it difficult to get a good look at it.
As you continue to walk through the Workshop you come to the oldest item in the exhibition. A stoneware “Dragon Jar” that dates back to between 1500 – 1600. The description alongside the jar indicates that it was in use for about 300 years. For something of that age, which had been used for so long, it was in amazing condition.
Throughout the exhibition space there were a number of vitrines (glass display cases). Within the Workshop there were two. In one of the cases there was cast bronze pieces in the shape of animal droppings (fox, badger, rabbit, deer and several others). Why? What is the thought process that makes you look at animal feces and think “I know, I’ll make some bronze casts of these and put them on display”. One of the artists behind this work is Marcus Coates, who among his other pieces being exhibited is a piece called “Crucifixes for Various Amphibians”. This item is one that does have a description, and it is not for the squeamish because it describes how Coates when he was young would capture toads, attach them to crucifixes made of lollipop sticks and then force their mouths open before pouring a poisonous mixture in. If the toads weren’t already dead by this point then they would be not long after.
Moving onto the Piggery there were several items that drew my attention.
One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was a wood plaque poster entitled “Lord of the Rings Gandalf with Hobbits” by Jimmy Cauty. I am Science Fiction and Fantasy fan so this work immediately ticked a lot of boxes for me, just because of the link to something I enjoy. Beyond that though I found the fact that it was on a wooden plaque fascinating and made it really stand out. The wood highly polished and varnished made it something that would far outlast the paper based versions of the poster that were sold by Athena.
Another interesting item, which links to the exercise Smash! that we did early in the course was four black and white photographs by Paul McCarthy. These were produced in 1972, before digital cameras. The images show dirt being thrown in the air using a shovel. Having done the exercise with the eggs I know how difficult it is to capture something at just the right moment. To do that with film must have been even harder because you would never know exactly what you’d photographed until you had developed the film and then developed prints. Digital with its instant feedback to the photographer makes life so much easier when attempting a project like this.
A few short steps away from McCarthy’s photographs hung a Welsh quilt, made at the end of the 19th century. The quilt was beautifully made, with a mixture of white cotton and satinteen. The pattern was simple but elegant. I was enjoying it and then the picky part of my brain kicked in and I found myself wondering why the pattern seemed to have been cut off at the edges of the main section, and not evenly cut off. Like wallpaper where the pattern hasn’t been matched up properly. Was this deliberate or completely accidental. I don’t know but it niggled me seeing it.
Further along there was a item that had been produced to celebrate 150 years of Disney. It was of Bambi but wasn’t a cartoon drawing or anything along those lines. In fact it was an oil painting. The level of detail was a joy because the more you looked at it the more things you spotted.
The next item that was a surprise was a pencil, pen and ink wash by Beatrix Potter. Not of Peter Rabbit or any of the characters she’s famed for creating. Instead this was a very detailed picture of absidia fungal spores. Although better known for her stories, Potter was a respected scientist, particulary in the study of fungii.
One of the last items in the Piggery that drew my attention was a platinum print entitled “Broken Tree, near Bruton” by Don McCullin. The black and white print is very brooding with dark skies and clouds. I’ve read quite a lot about McCullin and have seen a lot of his work in books. Being able to see some of his work in the flesh was a delight for me and I could have happily stood and looked at the print for ages.
The last item that proved to be a bit of a talking point was “Becoming a Landscape” by Roni Horn. The pair of prints are intriguing because they show a part of the landscape with what appears to be a pool of water. However, because there is nothing that allows the viewer to easily get a sense of scale the pool could be tiny or huge. Horn could have been stood over the pool taking the photograph or flying in an aircraft thousands of feet in the air. Removing anything that gives a sense of scale makes the image challenging for the viewer.
Moving on to the Rhodes gallery there were a number of interesting works.
On the wall as you entered was a rather vivid and colourful panel entitled “A Still Life of a laid Table, with Plates of Meat and Fish and a Basket of Fruit and Vegetables” by Jacob van Hulsdonck from around 1615. With the low light level in the room the colours and the subject matter really stood out.
In the centre of the room was a very long table, or in fact four tables. Each table has a different theme with the ones at each end being set up as if for a group of people to sit down and eat a meal.
As I looked at the table nearest to the entrance to the room I noticed a number of what appeared to be wraparound sunglasses, or dark glasses anyway. Looking at the table I noticed that there were 6 place settings but only 5 sets of glasses. One of the table settings was missing a pair of glasses. With the careful positioning of items this couldn’t have been an oversight. Perhaps the glasses signify how we are blind when it come to the way our food reaches us, with the missing pair inviting us to take of our blinkers and really look at what we put into our bodies. Either end of this table were two vases in the shape of male genitalia, their presence maybe signifying how mankind rapes the planet we live on in order to provide for itself without thinking about the consequences.
The last item I want to highlight was on one of the two middle tables and was a large structure, uniformly pale in colour with one exception. A large wasp-like figure that was positioned to one side. It was very easy to miss this but once you did notice it, then you were left wondering why it was there. What was it’s purpose? Perhaps no more than to make the viewer think.
Visiting the exhibition was fun. The weather wasn’t great, it was raining a lot so wandering around outside wasn’t going to happen and the grounds weren’t at their best. A visit later in the year is most definitely called for, just to explore some of the outside features.
Don McCullin was born on the 9th October 1935 and grew up in Finsbury Park, North London. He was one of three children, the others being his brother Michael and sister, Marie.
As a child, during World War 2, he was evacuated from London to Somerset. He was four and a half at the time.
The world that McCullin grew up in was very different to the one we live in today. There was very little fear of crime and people didn’t lock their doors. You even had milk delivered to your door.
In the 1950s the world began to change. People began to arrive in Great Britain from her colonies. There was resentment of the newcomers but it was also the start of the multi-cultural society that we now live in.
Street gangs ruled parts of London and there were rivalries between the different gangs. Things don’t seem to have changed much since then.
The photograph that changed things for McCullin was the one he took of the boys he grew up with who were part of a gang called the Guvnors. The photograph was published in The Observer, a copy of which can be found on the Telegraph website; along with other examples of his work.
During the 1950s, McCullin served in the RAF during his National Service and it was during this time that he began to learn his trade as part of a photographic unit.
Travelling the world, photographing so many people, places and events, McCullin now lives in rural Somerset.
Thrice married, he has 4 children by his first two wives, Paul, Jessica, Alexander and Claude.
Don McCullin is known as a war photographer and found himself in most of the major conflicts of the latter 20th century. At least until the Falklands and the Ministry of Defence refusing to grant him passage to the war zone.
During his life he has reported from Vietnam, Nigeria, Biafra, El Salvador, Beirut, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Iraq, the Congo, Cambodia, Cyprus, Chad, China, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa and Indonesia and could usually be found in the thick of events. He was even banned for life from Uganda.
He has met and photographed some of the most important people of the 20th century. In 1968 he photographed The Beatles, examples of which can be found at the following:
I first came across Don McCullin while completing a photography evening class at my local college. The tutor and some of the students were talking about an exhibition of some of his work that was on at a local gallery. Although I didn’t have the chance to get to the exhibition his name stuck in my memory and when I was browsing in Waterstones bookshop in The Galleries in Bristol and spotted his autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour I bought it in order to find out more about him. Since then I’ve picked up a number of other books of his photographs that he has published. The mixture of rural Somerset landscape, gritty Northern towns and people, and the reality of war, show an individual with an amazing talent and an incredible feel for what makes a powerful image.
McCullin D and Chester L, Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography, Jonathan Cape, 2015