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From Finsbury Park to Everywhere: Don McCullin show opens at Tate Britain

PUBLISHED: 16:03 04 February 2019

A protestor of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Picture: Don McCullin

A protestor of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Picture: Don McCullin

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A major exhibition of work by Sir Don McCullin has just launched at Tate Britain, offering a unique insight in to the great photographer's decorated and varied life behind the camera.

Catholic youth threatening police in Londonderry, 1971. Picture: Don McCullinCatholic youth threatening police in Londonderry, 1971. Picture: Don McCullin

Don McCullin’s childhood was a time stricken with poverty, bigotry and violence. Born in 1935 and raised in a Finsbury Park which wore the scars of World War Two long after the guns had fallen silent, he left school at 14 in order to support his family in the wake of his father’s death.

McCullin first picked up a camera – a Rolleicord – in the 1950s. His natural talent for capturing poignant moments – of young lads boxing in the street, of sheep being herded to the slaughterhouse on Caledonian Road – was obvious from the start, and it was his 1958 portrait of The Guv’nors, a notorious local gang, which lit the touchpaper for his illustrious career after it was published in The Observer.

From there, McCullin worked as a photojournalist perhaps best known for his coverage of major conflict and international incidents, but you can also see his litany of beautiful documentary and landscape photographs in an exhibition of his work which just opened at Tate Britain.

Simon Baker, the exhibition’s curator, says: “Don took some of the most iconic pictures of the 20th century if you think about photos like the Shell-shocked US Marine from Vietnam, his pictures in Beirut and his coverage of the AIDS crisis.

The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, 1958. Picture: Don McCullinThe Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, 1958. Picture: Don McCullin

“Also, (the exhibition shows) his curiosity and commitment to injustice. He came from a very poor and underprivileged background, and he had a crusading sense of revealing and documenting injustice. There’s a powerful emotional sense in his work which comes from his own motivation and personal history.”

This major retrospective features over 250 McCullin photographs, spread across a number of rooms and furnished with pieces of memorabilia from his career – including original spreads from the Sunday Times Magazine, his helmet and the Nikon camera which took a bullet for him when he was caught in crossfire during the Cambodian Civil War in 1970.

A gallery of shots from his early days experimenting in Finsbury Park are included, as are a selection of images from his fascinating look at poverty and homelessness on the streets of Whitechapel in the 1970s.

“That series on homelessness is one of my favourites,” continues Baker, “because that area is so trendy and chic today. It’s really hard to imagine that only 30 or 40 years ago that part of London was derelict, with people sleeping on the streets around makeshift fires.

Local boys in Bradford, 1972. Picture: Don McCullinLocal boys in Bradford, 1972. Picture: Don McCullin

“This visibility of homelessness in the streets is in an area which is now full of designer shops and cappuccino shops.

“You can come in and really see a London from before. The exhibition is for a really broad cross-section of the population; I think people who lived through these events will be fascinated to see some of these images again, whereas a younger generation who don’t know about the Vietnam War or the AIDS crisis can see a very interesting display of history through photography.”

The exhibition, which remains open daily until May 6, also offers significant coverage of McCullin’s work photographing tensions in Berlin during the Cold War, the Biafra War and the troubles in Northern Ireland.

A good number of the images are difficult to look at – from prisoners of war being tormented before their execution to a starving boy in Biafra whose possessions include a tattered jumper and not much else. In the words of McCullin himself; “you have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.”

Seaside pier on the south coast, Eastbourne, 1970s. Picture: Don McCullinSeaside pier on the south coast, Eastbourne, 1970s. Picture: Don McCullin

“Technically and aesthetically he’s a really incredible photographer,” says Baker of McCullin, who was knighted in 2017.

“(He has a) very dark, very powerful, very intense way of making pictures. Every single print of the show is printed by Don at his home. You have a real sense of each photograph as an object. These are things that someone has worried over and struggled to produce by hand, rather than sending it off to a lab.”

Upon returning from the trauma and suffering of war on many different stages, McCullin’s later career behind the camera was shaped by trips to the north of England; taking pictures of cities like Liverpool, Durham and Bradford – a place he described as “full of energy and enthusiasm – an exciting, giant, visual city.”

The last couple of rooms at this exhibition feature pictures of the Somerset countryside – where McCullin has been based for 30 years – with one final return to a war-zone, this time to document the deliberate destruction of historic cities in Syria by so-called Islamic State fighters.

Woods near my House, Somerset, circa 1991. Picture: Don McCullinWoods near my House, Somerset, circa 1991. Picture: Don McCullin

Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG is open daily between 10am and 6pm, until May 6. More details are here.

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