Two Exhibitions, Two Very Different Photographers: Don McCullin and Martin Parr

2019 is turning out to be quite a year for photography here in the UK. The Photography Show at the National Exhibition Centre in March had some great talks from the likes of Martin Parr, Pete Souza, Lindsay Adler and Moose Petersen. We’ve had a Diane Arbus exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and an upcoming retrospective from Cindy Sherman at the National Portait Gallery in the summer. There are also the usual Sony World Photography Awards, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize and Taylor Wessing coming up.

Top amongst all of this however has to be the current exhibitions from two of this countries greatest living photographers, Don McCullin, who has a major retrospective at Tate Britain (5th February – 6th May) and Martin Parr’s Only Human exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (7th March – 27th May). I’ve been lucky enough to get to both of these shows and came away from both even more impressed by these men’s work but with hugely different emotions having spent an hour or so viewing their images.

I have been a fan of McCullin ever since I discovered his work in this book at my local library in the mid-70’s. His biography Unreasonable Behaviour, detailing his rise from humble beginnings in the East End to his almost iconic status as “one of our greatest living photographers” was another influential book for me as were some of his later volumes of photographs. I am therefore very familiar with McCullin’s work but nothing quite prepares you to getting up close to some of his most iconic images that are on display on the grey walled rooms of Tate Britain.

Here is the shell-shocked American marine staring lifelessly into McCullin’s camera; the starving Biafran Albino child, barely able to stand he is so weak and here, one of my favourite McCullin images, the British troops running up a street in Northern Ireland with their batons, guns and riot shields at the ready whilst a woman stands in a doorway looking on in terror.

This is not an easy exhibition to walk around. There is room after room of McCullin’s stark, often grainy and high contrast images inviting you to stare and look on aghast at the worst excesses of man’s inhumanity across multiple war zones, countries and many of the worst religious, political and social atrocities the late 20th century had to offer. Sadly, as some of his later pictures of the wars in Syria and poor beggars in India have to show us, these are atrocities that have not gone away because we entered a new century but in some ways have just become almost too easy to ignore because we now live in a world oversaturated by such images and subsumed by the relentless 24 hour, always on news cycle.

Toward the end of the exhibition, as you enter the final rooms, you are presented with something to hopefully relieve the trauma of the previous images. Here we see some of McCullin’s landscape and still life pictures. Whilst they are all hauntingly beautiful in their own way we still do not entirely get freed from the starkness of the world McCullin has occupied for the past 60 years. No bright, colourful landscapes or sunsets here. Instead we see “dark Wagnerian clouds” full of the menace of impending storms, which McCullin darkens even further in his printing. As he says in his book Shaped by War  “there is a look of Flanders” [about some of his landscapes] with “the nakedness of the trees and the emptiness, which makes the earth look as if it has been scorched or pulverised by shells”. It seems that even back home in his beloved Somerset, McCullin will never come to terms with the horrors he has witnessed for over half a century or the closeness to death he has been himself, once famously when his Nikon F shielded him from a bullet.

McCullin's Nikon

Don McCullin’s Nikon F which shielded him from a bullet in Vietnam

Whilst this huge exhibition of McCullin’s life work is sometimes hard and terrible to view and you don’t exactly leave it feeling good about your fellow humans, it is an essential visit. If you are a fan of his, enjoy beautifully composed and printed black and white photographs (McCullin prints all of his own images) or just want to be made aware of the terrible injustices that have been wrought on people around the world during your lifetime then get to Tate Britain before this magnificent exhibition ends.

Martin Parr’s Only Human exhibition is at London’s National Portrait Gallery and runs until 27th May. This is a very different affair indeed. Rather than the monotone grey walls of the McCullin show here we have pink walls, tennis court flooring, deckchairs and even a pop-up cafe serving tea and cake in the middle of the exhibition. All designed to be an extension to Parr’s irreverent and satirical style and the way he photographs the idiosyncrasies of the British (who are the main subjects on display here). Of course there is also the inevitable gift shop, quite literally stacked high with not just books and posters but pretty much anything else you can print a photograph on.

Parr is very much a Marmite kind of photographer. You either love his photographs or hate them. Even Parr’s fellow photographers seem to be split into these two camps. The story goes that though Parr had joined the Magnum photo agency as an associate member in 1988 the vote to include him as a full member in 1994 was split with Philip Jones Griffiths circulating a letter to other members asking them not to admit him. Parr achieved the needed two-thirds majority by one vote.

You shouldn’t let these divisive opinions stop you visiting this exhibition though. Martin Parr has been observing the British for pretty much his entire career and now has a huge library of images that not only capture our national identity and foibles but also provide an insight into our cultures, ceremonies, and ordinary, day to day activities across all classes, religions and social strata. Rather than McCullin’s high contrast stark black and white images here we have a riot of over saturated colour as well as often unconventional perspectives not to mention some ‘interesting’ portrait locations (Vivienne Westwood’s portrait in the toilet being particularly inspired I thought).

The exhibition is split into various rooms by subject matter. The ‘Brexit’ room has images from some of Parr’s recent visits to heavily pro-Brexit areas like Lincolnshire and Cornwall. You won’t find any cliche images of marches or demonstrations here though. Instead, Parr chooses to create more metaphorical pictures like the scene of holidaymakers on a Cornish beach with a red flag in the sand warning that there is danger out at sea.

I particularly enjoyed the portrait room that featured many personalities from the worlds of the arts, fashion and film. Here you’ll find Vivienne Westwood  in the loo, Paul Smith hardly visible in a room filled with ‘stuff’, the (Grayson) Perry family looking resplendent in a room with lime green wallpaper and yellow flooring, Anna Wintour texting from the side of the catwalk and Pelé asleep cuddling a football.

Martin Parr’s colourful and vibrant images are definitely uplifting and I came away from this exhibition feeling a lot more positive about the British condition than I have for a number of months now. The general doom and gloom caused by our Brexit chaos has left me in a state of despair of late but Parr’s images make you realise that the peculiar characteristics of the British people will hopefully help us rise above all the horrible tensions, fears and infighting that our great nation is suffering from and also how lucky we are to inhabit this small island in the Atlantic Ocean.

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