Mention the name Don McCullin and instantly you are drawn into the images of war: Cambodia, Cyprus, Biafra, Northern Ireland and, of course, Vietnam that appeared predominately in the Sunday Times and Observer. Incredible unsettling photographs that brought home the pointlessness and savagery of conflicts.
Nobody could emerge unscathed from such experiences and the effect they had upon McCullin was highlighted in the BBC radio interview he gave to Mariella Frostrup at home in Somerset in 2017. Here he stated that the English landscape is his psychiatrist’s chair. In the fields of the West Country, he can stand and “let all the horrors go somewhere else.”
Wandering through the excellent retrospective currently on show at Tate Britain you journey through these terrors before reaching the final room, where, in complete, contrast, the theme changes to landscapes, the focus of his latest collection published by Jonathan Cape. As McCullin explained in the interview, he photographs the majority of his landscapes in winter, when the bare trees “talk loudly.” The Wagnerian, metallic skies together with the dark, rolling hills draw the viewer in. The closer you get, the more small, yet vital details gradually emerge from each brumous, seemingly unwelcoming scene. He wants the viewer to ask questions, to move beyond the simple facts of the image and delve into its place in history as well as nature’s fragility.
Yet the new collection, noted as his last with that publisher, draws from the beginnings of his work in Finsbury Park, through the Dante-like smoking chimneys of Hartlepool and fogs of Bradford, to the beaches of Scarborough and Southend before settling in Somerset. There is an almost solemn sense to each picture. Every photograph in the show has been newly printed by Don himself and this adds to the feeling of an ongoing conversation between him and the viewer. They are haunting yet at the same time reassuring. As you move away to look at them as a collection they conjure memories of journeys in similar settings.
In fact the time spent gazing into each picture does feel as though, having encountered him on a path, he has actually invited you to continue and walk beside him along the tracks as he describes in passionate detail the Levels, the hills, dew ponds and rivers to you.
This retrospective at Tate Britain is on until 5th May. The book – The Landscape – published by Jonathan Cape, is available now.