McCullin has been a photographic hero of mine ever since I came across his work in the book The Concerned Photographer by Cornell Capa back in the late 70’s. Indeed it was that one book, more than anything else, that really got me interested in photography in the first place back in my teenage years. Since then I have acquired many of McCullin’s books, seen his images at various exhibitions over the years and of course watched the excellent documentary about him by Jacqui Morris which was released in 2013. So, I’m something of a McCullin fanboy you might say and was thrilled when I heard he was to speak at The Photography Show this year.
McCullin is 80 this year but considering all he has been through, including triple heart by-pass surgery, looked in remarkably good shape as he strode onto the stage. The first half of his talk was him taking us through some of his iconic images (the shell shocked soldier in Vietnam, the Albino child in Biafra, the charging troops in Northern Ireland and the starving women trying to breast feed her small baby) and giving us some of the back stories behind them. Many of these he has written about in his various books though a more recent tale from his last assignment in Syria for The Times (when he was a sprightly 77 years old) did make the audience laugh. McCullin had taken a picture of a group of advancing rebel troops who saw what he had done and one of their members came over, threatened him and asked to see his camera. Apparently McCullin had been loaned some cameras by Canon and he was not fully familiar with how they worked. He tried to show the soldier an image from the back of the camera but somehow showed him an earlier picture, not of these soldiers at all. The rebel soldier smiled and walked off apparently happy that his men had not been photographed after all.
The second half of the talk was devoted to McCullin fielding a number of questions from the audience. These were what really enabled us to see, and just begin to understand, the man behind the images. It is very clear that he is completely devoted to photography and the effect it can have on people and cares not a jot for the technology behind it. At one point he tapped his chest saying the photographs came from here and the lens and the film just helped him make the images he felt in his heart. One of the final questions from the audience was most telling of all. Someone asked how, given what he had been through, he was not more damaged mentally by the horrors he must have seen. He answered that he had obviously had some very dark times and that these had impacted on him and on his personal life greatly but that now he had found some kind of a peace in himself and was able to enjoy photography in its own right spending time in his beloved Somerset where he is able to capture his superb black and white (though still somehow quite dark and war like) landscape and still life images.He certainly seemed like a man that has somehow learned to live with himself even if he will never understand how men can bring about some of the atrocities he has seen over the course of a 50+ year career. He did hint however that he may still do one last conflict having had an invite to go to Iraq. Hard to believe he would even contemplate that in the year of his 80th birthday.
So, this was a great end to a great show this year and some of McCullin’s final words kind of sum up both his talk and the whole show:
“It’s a bit of a mess photography but it’s a great mess to be in”.
Amen to that.