In­ter­view

Sir Don McCullin re­vis­its his glit­ter­ing ca­reer as he talks to Martin Parr

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Sir Don McCullin is one of Bri­tain’s most pro­lific pho­to­jour­nal­ists, known for cap­tur­ing the in­ter­na­tional con­flict zones of the late 20th cen­tury in The Sun­day Times

Mag­a­zine. Don’s new book The Land­scape might en­com­pass the en­tirety of his work­ing life, but the sub­ject is more pas­toral in na­ture. The cor­ners of ru­ral Eng­land come alive un­der his pref­er­ence for moody, metal­lic skies.

Speak­ing at the Martin Parr Foun­da­tion, it was only fit­ting that Martin Parr him­self should in­ter­view Don about the new book, his work and a life-long love af­fair with tak­ing pic­tures. “You are the most hon­est pho­tog­ra­pher I know,” says Martin to end the evening. “Thank you.”

Martin Parr: I think all pho­tog­ra­phers have a mo­ment where they de­cide they want to be a pho­tog­ra­pher. What was yours?

Sir Don McCullin: I never re­ally wanted to be a pho­tog­ra­pher. When I worked in May­fair, I used to pho­to­graph line draw­ings for artists, and they said

“You should take these pic­tures to The

Ob­server news­pa­per.” Even­tu­ally they were pub­lished, and they gave me £50 – which is more money than I had earned in my whole life. Then sud­denly I re­alised that I had my names un­der these pho­to­graphs.

I think for the first time, I felt I could be some­body. I thought photography could be the ve­hi­cle that could take me to that place. So in a way, photography chose me, re­ally. You’ve prob­a­bly be­come one of The Sun­day

Times’ most cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­phers. How was that trans­for­ma­tion for you? When I was young, I was never in­ter­ested in fi­nan­cial wealth. All I wanted was to see my name un­der the photography. My fa­ther died at the age of 40, and I felt re­ally shabby about the way his life had no mean­ing at all. I wanted to make his name, my name… I wanted it to mean some­thing. You were a Sun­day Times con­trib­u­tor at the be­gin­ning of the mag­a­zine launch… I was re­ally lucky. It doesn’t mat­ter how good you are in life if you don’t have a cham­pion, like good art di­rec­tors or peo­ple who be­lieve in you. When you have those peo­ple, they ex­pect a lot of you, so you go off and risk your life be­cause you don’t want to come back and say to the ed­i­tor, “It didn’t work.” Be­cause you knew you wouldn’t get an­other jour­ney again. I’d go away and stick my head where it wasn’t wel­come, and got away with it all those years. And did you have a say in where you would go? Was it down to you put sug­ges­tions in for the sto­ries you’d be pur­su­ing? Well, I got over­con­fi­dent and a bit cheeky. I would walk into The Sun­day Times and say, “Things are re­ally bad in such an such a place, and shouldn’t we be there?” And they would re­ply, “OK, go there then.”

And when I’d get back, I would ac­tu­ally edit my own work and stand over the art di­rec­tor where they were lay­ing my pic­tures out. But I thought, no­body knew the story bet­ter than me, so why shouldn’t I? And you aren’t one of these re­form­ing pho­to­jour­nal­ists that say, “I am go­ing out there to change the world?” Not at all. I have to be hon­est, be­cause if you tell any kind of fibs in this life, peo­ple are go­ing to find out. I love photography, and photography has had such a grip on me, and it still does. I am in a po­si­tion where there is a stran­gle­hold over my whole com­mit­ment. I don’t be­lieve you can do any­thing well un­less you are in this po­si­tion. You are prob­a­bly best known for your war photography. Tell us a bit about go­ing to Viet­nam… You weren’t ly­ing with the troops. You were a free voice. They al­ways say Viet­nam was the last time photography had some de­gree of in­de­pen­dence. Did you find that to be the case? You had too much free­dom. There was too much to pho­to­graph there, and in the end you

could be­come blasé – which I didn’t. We’re talk­ing about life and death, and when you see peo­ple ar­riv­ing in plas­tic bags, you won­dered, “What kind of thing am I in­volved in?” Did you have the after-ef­fects of the war haunt­ing you in the rest of your ca­reer? My big­gest fear about the war was com­ing back with pic­tures that were un­der­ex­posed, or prob­lems tech­ni­cally. I al­ways used to stand up in the bat­tles and take an ex­po­sure light read­ing, be­cause there is no point of tak­ing a good pic­ture you can’t print. I am re­ally se­ri­ous about what I do – and, by the way, let’s not for­get war is quite ex­cit­ing. Many of the cor­re­spon­dents, I think, got off on it. There was an adren­a­line rush when we walked away from death. It made you feel al­most in­vin­ci­ble, you know, a spe­cial per­son – which was non­sense, re­ally. Did you get that same adren­a­line rush?

I’ve never taken a drug – apart from what the NHS gives me ev­ery week – but there is def­i­nitely a druggy ef­fect of go­ing to war­fare, and walk­ing away and get­ting on the

“I went into the coun­try­side and stood there in howl­ing bliz­zards and rain, and I sud­denly started feel­ing happy. I sud­denly felt free, and ready to start life all over again”

air­plane and hav­ing a glass of some­thing on the way home, know­ing you got through it. It is al­most a dis­gust­ing thing to say, re­ally. So when Rupert Mur­doch took over The Sun­day Times, did you leave soon after? He cer­tainly in­vested in my down­fall by hir­ing An­drew Neil as ed­i­tor. One day Neil came in and said: “Gather round. This is the mag­a­zine. There are go­ing to be no more wars, and this is go­ing to be a leisure and life mag­a­zine.” That was it, re­ally. I had a midlife cri­sis com­ing at 50 years of age, and was sud­denly out of work. Did you go back to The Ob­server?

I drifted around, and ac­tu­ally did some ad­ver­tis­ing work be­cause I was broke and had no money. Shoot­ing ad­ver­tis­ing is a thing I have never been proud of, but you are still us­ing a cam­era. Was it around this time that you got the idea of ap­ply­ing your­self to the land­scape? I went to Som­er­set 35 years ago. I was in a re­la­tion­ship, got kicked out, and I started smash­ing my­self up and kick­ing the fur­ni­ture around, feel­ing sorry for my­self. When I came through that, I sud­denly re­alised I was be­ing such a fool, be­cause I was sur­rounded by beau­ti­ful coun­try­side. I thought, “You can mend this bro­ken sit­u­a­tion.”

I went into the coun­try­side and stood there in howl­ing bliz­zards and rain, and I sud­denly started feel­ing happy. I sud­denly felt free, and ready to start life all over again. So photography is your ther­apy, too? It’s cured many things. But I’ve looked at some

of the most hor­ri­ble things you can imag­ine in this world, and when you are stand­ing in front of a naked land­scape in Som­er­set, these things never go away. I love photography, and paid a huge price for it. Look­ing at your new land­scape book, one of the things that re­ally strikes me about the Som­er­set pic­tures is the cap­tions. ‘Near my home’ is rather charm­ing… I get out of bed, and the first thing I look at when I wake up in the morn­ing is the sky. The dra­matic, metal­lic sky is the voice of my land­scapes. And what do you do in the sum­mer, be­cause I note all your Som­er­set land­scapes are taken in the win­ter? I get the sunbed out in the sum­mer – I don’t like the skies. There isn’t a dark movie sky in the sum­mer? You don’t like leaves, do you? No. When you see a tree naked, it tells you more. When you see a naked tree with­out fo­liage, it’s the real thing. The tree cov­ered is like some­one throw­ing a tea towel over it. It’s not the same. As we’re cel­e­brat­ing the new book, could you give us some his­tory of your in­volve­ment with land­scapes? I think the land­scape is one of the most im­por­tant things that we can be con­cern­ing our­selves with right now. When I was younger, I thought photography would be good be­cause all you do is go out and take pic­tures. It’s not po­lit­i­cal. And yet, al­most ev­ery­thing I’ve touched has been po­lit­i­cal. How is the Som­er­set land­scape po­lit­i­cal?

Even where I live in my lit­tle vil­lage in Som­er­set, there’s a hous­ing de­vel­op­ment edg­ing its way up. I can’t be holier than thou when it comes to giv­ing a per­son a roof over their head, but at the same time we live in a small coun­try.

I am record­ing the land­scape, mak­ing my mark of it. Ev­ery time you take a pic­ture, you are record­ing the lives of peo­ple. You are all part of the his­tor­i­cal jour­ney.

“Photography has given me an amaz­ing life. With­out it I would be noth­ing, I would have noth­ing”

When you get to the pearly gates and they say, “Hello Mr McCullin, are you a pho­to­jour­nal­ist or a land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher?” What are you go­ing to say?

I am nei­ther. I only ever sought one ti­tle, and that is to be called a pho­tog­ra­pher. I am very happy with that. Photography is all of me, prob­a­bly too much. I’ve been tak­ing the long road in photography be­cause I am ob­sessed with it. Yes­ter­day in my dark­room I kept say­ing, “I am go­ing to give this up”, but in my dark­room when I see that print com­ing in the de­vel­oper, it’s as if I’m win­ning the lot­tery.

You told me ear­lier that yes­ter­day you printed the last print for your Tate show…

I am ter­ri­bly im­pris­oned by the fear of some­thing not be­ing good – be­cause when

you stick 270 pic­tures at Tate Bri­tain, they’ve got to be good. The trou­ble is I also feel very un­com­fort­able that some of the pic­tures I’ve taken in my life are def­i­nitely ter­ri­ble pic­tures of other peo­ple suf­fer­ing.

Would you say you’re ex­ploita­tive?

I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to ex­ploit. I am, you know, think­ing too much. That is what I do. I over­think, I over­com­pen­sate and I over-emo­tion­ally see things. I feel as if I am be­ing suf­fo­cated by photography some­times.

It seems ev­ery emo­tion on the planet has to do with your re­la­tion­ship with photography: it suf­fo­cates you, it in­tox­i­cates you, it de­presses you, it en­hances you.

What I am try­ing to con­vey to the peo­ple here tonight – how­ever you may per­ceive the way that I come across, I am pretty hon­est about what I say. Photography has given me an amaz­ing life. With­out it I would be noth­ing and I would have noth­ing.

Don McCullin’s pho­to­book The Land­scape, pub­lished by Jonathan Cape, is out now. A ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of Don’s work will be held at Tate Bri­tain from Fe­bru­ary 2019.

For more on the Martin Parr Foun­da­tion, see www.mar­t­in­par­rfoun­da­tion.org

Right: Stone­henge, 2017.

Above: ‘Evening in my vil­lage’, Som­er­set, 2008.

Right: ‘De­struc­tion of the Mon­u­men­tal Arch’, Palmyra, Syria, 2018.

Above: ‘Ele­phant fes­ti­val’, River Gan­dak, In­dia, 1991.

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