Dark visions
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Date: 7 November, 2003

Click on the book cover above to purchase it and raise money for Christian Aid projects. Image: Jonathan Cape


Review by Malcolm Doney

If you were a newspaper editor and wanted someone to descend into hell and send back pictures, you'd choose Don McCullin.

As arguably the world's greatest war photographer, he's already been there (several times) and has the pictures to prove it.

McCullin's career has spanned most of the second half of the 20th century and included some of the world's nastiest conflicts: Beirut, Cambodia, the Congo, Cyprus, Ulster and Vietnam.

This takes a certain kind of buccaneering bravado. As former Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans -who used to work with McCullin - says in his introduction: 'This is the man who amid a fusillade of bullets would stop to take a light reading. "What's the point of getting killed if you've got the wrong exposure?" was the way he put it.' You may need a slice of luck too - his trademark Nikon once taking the bullet intended for him. Given the amount of frontline action he has seen, it is remarkable that he has escaped serious injury.

But as this retrospective collection of his pictures shows, he is a great deal more than a war junky or even a cataloguer of horrors - Don MCullin is more artist than reporter. He transcends the reporter's craft by the emotional (you might even say spiritual), quality of these images.

He photographs people at moments of utmost intensity, where their lives are under threat, or at the death of a loved one and somehow manages - without losing the horror or the anguish - to find something almost lyrical. Harold Evans again: 'McCullin's photograph's bear contemplation so often because the documentary fact is expressed poetically'.

This book is to be pored over for the intimacy and grace of these pictures: a Turkish Cypriot fighter in his suit and tie, with a rifle in one hand and a half eaten apple in the other; a wounded US marine sprawled like a dead Christ, tended and guarded by his friends; Bangladeshi flood refugees huddled in the rain.

There is darkness here, to be sure. Even the landscapes which bookend this awesome retrospective collection are brooding rather than joyful, reinforced by the characteristic darkness of McCullin's exclusively black and white prints. He is an artist with an eye for tragedy, as Cold Heaven, his series of pictures of African Aids victims sponsored by Christian Aid eloquently displays. But his passion, his sheer humanity, always wins through.

What is ultimately remarkable about McCullin is that, like all the best photographers, he is also supremely an artist of the intuitive moment. There is something almost mystical about his ability to sense and to frame these mysteries through a tiny mechanical aperture, in the space of a second - it takes something less like sight and more like vision.

See a number of the photographs in this retrospective, as well as the work of other leading photographers, at the V & A's website

More McCullin information and links can be found here.

Don McCullin, published by Jonathan Cape, 296pp