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