Don McCullin’s exhaustive and exhausting photographic retrospective at Tate Britain is an interesting choice at a time when the United Kingdom seems to have lost its way. The relevance of McCullin’s photography in the way London and Londoners see themselves today is big. Along with Roger Mayne and his romanticised views of North Kensington at the time when Britain started to realise that the empire was a thing of the past, McCullin’s 1958 ‘The Guv’nors’ depicting the Finsbury Park’s gang posing in a North London ruin which, in hindsight, looked like a real life set of the musical West Side Story created the visual template that eventually most of young rock and pop musicians such as the Rolling Stones followed since then. After that photo it was just cool to look like a criminal. As a matter of fact, the influence of West Side Story in ‘The Guv’nors’ shouldn’t be discarded for it had opened in Broadway only two months before he took that picture. McCullin was a forefather of what could be considered the pop synthesis of realism and fashion which made his work analogous to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up or Lewis Morley’s pictures of the London debut of the ‘Fringe’ or of Christine Keeley, the woman at the center of the John Profumo scandal.
Surprisingly, this was not a priority for the Tate’s curation (Aïcha Mehrez) which instead decided to follow a clinically chronological approach spanning sixty years of career and putting, in my opinion, far too much emphasis in McCullin’s photojournalistic career. Out of the eleven rooms only one is dedicated to his ‘early London’ pictures and another one to those of ‘the East end’. The rest, with the exception of the last one, are all dedicated to his images of war and political violence: the Vietnam War, the Cyprus Crisis, the Cambodian Civil War, El Salvador Civil War, the Nigerian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge, the Northern Ireland Conflict, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War, the horrors of Aids and Isis. The overwhelming number of black and white low light images of dead and tortured people were supposed to inform the public of what was happening ‘overseas’ but there is definitely something paradoxically sadistic in his realist humanism. The level of detail with which he represents the victim’s pain makes his compassion and drama fall into a similar kind of glamorisation that made ‘The Guv’nors’ so effective but in his images of unspeakable pain an idea of the British empire is reinstated according to who tells the story and how. Without exception those images objectify the victims naturalising its representation. They are just that. Victims. And they are there and we are here. Looking at McCullin’s photographs in 2019 leaft a sour taste in my mouth that I think is linked to the way he self-fashion as a monumentally courageous photojournalist whose masculine eye represents the pain of those whose miseries are a direct outcome of the same British violence that McCullin is trying to exorcise. Instead of deconstructing this, Tate’s curators indulged in that cynicism to the point of turning the show into a sadistic experience of sorts in which the viewer can only nod to the imposing post imperial virility of this ‘brave’ white man’s realist humanism.
It is a well known fact that McCullin loved the darkness both metaphorically and literally for he printed every work himself, working in his darkroom at home for hours and hours. One cannot help but think of Joseph Conrad notion of darkness as something that since the time of the British Empire was far away until it came over here with terrorist attacks, asylum seekers and migration. Brexit, in a way, is a decision to break away from the growth of that darkness into a reality where the white man cannot carry on claiming the upper hand through image making and sheer ‘humanistic’ attitude. J A T