Words - 20th Century Greats - Don McCullin


20th Century Greats series (2000)

Don McCullin, CBE (1935 - )

A natural story-teller, he arrived on the national media scene after the ‘golden age’ of the picture story had passed, but McCullin’s natural professionalism lifted him above his ego-driven contemporaries; photo-personalities who mesmerised 1960’s glossy magazine editors. John Chillingworth ignores the ocean of words charting the successes and failures of McCullin’s life, to identify his true claim to a place in 20th century photographic history.

The pseudo-sophisticates who earn their living in the world of ‘wallpaper’ journalism have polarised views on photographers.

On the one hand, they can have the patronising attitude of -“It’s a pity that you are only a photographer”. On the other, given an editorial prod, they will eulogise on the subject to the point of nausea.

McCullin, it seems, suffers from the latter! Attempts to make him a working-class icon are laughable. In Finsbury Park, the ‘tough’ inner suburb of London where he grew up, policemen had stopped walking the beat in twos for safety, before World War 1.

Having grown up before him, poor and street-wise, living for a while in the same area, your correspondent knows that gangs of youths, including his own ‘Guv’nors of Seven Sisters Road’ were as unexceptional then, as they are today.

Leaving school at the age of 14, was another unexceptional matter in early post-war London. McCullin would have learned the facts of inner city life like thousands of other kids on the block without feeling ‘deprived’, because there were no leafy suburbs within a tuppenny bus ride, against which to measure his deprivation.

Breaking into Fleet Street
By 1958, when McCullin’s pictures of his own ‘gang’ were first seen, story-telling photographers of the Picture Post era were already using their skills in other fields. At the time, the young ‘meteor’ would probably have been given a pack of film and told to do some more work by the perceptive picture editor of ‘The Observer’.

Such encouragement to a young unknown would have released the tidal wave of adrenaline so familiar to every photographer, who has tasted success in the toughest media ‘street’ in the world.

It is his reaction to that initial encouragement, which reflects so admirably on McCullin’s integrity as a natural image-maker.
Starved of ‘character’ photographers, the reaction to his images among competing newspapers were, in retrospect, distinctly unhelpful. Their clamour for his gritty black and white images made him ‘famous’.

Battle-star McCullin
By 1964, when he joined the staff of the Sunday Times, the newspaper was already in its post-reality period. His appointment would have been viewed as a triumph by the editorial staff, but as a mere commodity purchase by a ‘dead-head’ management with one foot in the past, when photographers were camera ‘operators’ who were grateful to bring up their families on five pounds a week!

Indulged by his editors as he rushed to every war that showed its head above the parapet, McCullin’s work exploded into the consciousness of a nation already disgusted by the ravages of WWII.

However, walking in the fading footprints of war-reporting essayists like Robert Capa and Larry Burrows, the young man from Finsbury Park was at a disadvantage.

With no publication that could or would publish the kind of narrative photography, which reduced the journalist to a mere note-taker and caption writer, his style evolved into brilliant, beautifully composed individual commentaries on the futility, cruelty and horror of armed conflict.

Magazine editors of a previous era would never have given McCullin his head to travel in one war-torn direction. By doing so, they would have deprived themselves of the opportunity to apply his massive talent to the creation of images that could have influenced their readers in other ways.

A born survivor; with the passage of time, Don McCullin has risen above such things. He is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and an Honorary Doctor of Bradford University, but as he capitalises on ‘fame’ his many personal experiences will haunt him, still. That’s the hell of being a 20th century ‘great’!

© Copyright John Chillingworth