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Don McCullin’s Post-Empire England

Susan Hallett Created: February 4, 2013 Last Updated: February 4, 2013
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“Homeless Irishman, Aldgate, East End, London,” 1970, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

“Homeless Irishman, Aldgate, East End, London,” 1970, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

The National Gallery of Canada is currently exhibiting a major retrospective of compelling black and white photographs created by Don McCullin of Somerset, England.

Some might call this gifted photojournalist a war photographer but that would be inaccurate. Simply put, McCullin, who was born in 1935 in North London, is an artist.

“McMullin`s photographs belong in an art gallery because they consistently bring clarity and compositional grace to their compelling subject matter. These pictures are both hard to look at and hard not to,” said NGC director and CEO Marc Meyer.

His work is celebrated internationally. Most viewers of “Don McCullin: A Retrospective” will sense an aura of spirituality, very evident to me in photos of homeless men sleeping while standing up in East London, and in his Finsbury Park images.

Writing in the NGC’s magazine, Katherine Stauble, Sobey Curatorial Assistant, Photographs, described the most recent photos in the exhibit as “Turneresque views of the Somerset wetlands.”

McCullin himself said he thinks of his photographs as the “landscape of Arthurian myth.”

His impassioned photographs of England after the Second World War convey the air of desperation that prevailed in his homeland at the time—and a touching humanity that all but the most jaded will feel.

“The Guvnors, Finsbury Park, London,” 1958, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

“The Guvnors, Finsbury Park, London,” 1958, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

McCullin was just 23 when he took the first of his famous photos, “The Gov’nors, Finsbury Park, London”—the one that caught the world’s attention.

McCullin, who grew up in Finsbury Park, photographed members of the Guv’nors, a local gang, dressed for an evening out and standing in the skeleton of a building destroyed by the Blitz. The year was 1958.

This photo was sold to the Observer newspaper after McMullin learned that the group had been linked to a police murder. That is when his career in photojournalism began.

Almost everyone knows that the British Empire had a global reach. It was once called The Kingdom of Great Britain. In the early 1920s, Britain was at its peak, containing almost one quarter of the world’s land and approximately one quarter of the total population.

But not everyone knows about the poverty and despair in England after the war. More than 100 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on British cities between Sept. 7, 1940, and May 21, 1941.

McMullin, however, knew first-hand, and according to Stauble created an important body of social documentary photographs in his home country. It is a major series of work and covers the homeless in London and northern England from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“Jean, a homeless woman, Aldgate, East End, London,” 1984, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

“Jean, a homeless woman, Aldgate, East End, London,” 1984, gelatin silver print. (Don McCullin/Contact Press Images)

The image of the homeless Irishman in Aldgate and that of Jean, the homeless woman he befriended and finally found a hospice for, are unforgettable. His images of steelworkers, unemployed miners and later on, his war and battlefield photos taken in conflict areas around the world, are unforgettable.

As Barbara Gray, an Ottawa photographer and arts reviewer, said after seeing the exhibit, “I thought his photographs truly some of the best ever seen.”

The showing, the first for McCullin in Canada, continues until April 14.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review among many others. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com

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