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
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
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’.
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
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