Don McCullin by Don McCullin

An important but troubling book. McCullin is probably the best photographer of war and conflict to come out of the 20th Century; by which I mean that his images are disturbing and powerful.

This book is an overview of his career up to about 2001, and it is bookended by images he took of the Somerset Levels and other landscapes after his “retirement”. Even these images, taken in monochrome in wintry conditions, have a bleakness about them that suggests that after a career exposed to and exposing real-world horror, McCullin shuns conventional beauty in favour of truth.

The book then chronicles his early work as a documentary photojournalist in London and other parts of the UK, and then plunges us into conflict, starting with Cyprus in 1964 and ending in Beirut in 1982. The dark side of the 20th century is exposed here for all to see; and some of his non-conflict work, such as pictures of industrial decline from Britain in the 1970s or homelessness in London in 1969, is set in chronological order so we can see that darkness was not absent from our own shores in that time.

The book ends with a section called ‘Upriver’, which contains images of indigenous peoples of Asia and Indonesia, all linked with themes of rivers and seas, before ending with some final images of the Somerset Levels again.

McCullin was in the thick of the action and was wounded in Cambodia in 1970. He has recently announced that at the age of 77 he is going to go to Syria to photograph the conflict there, probably as an act of defiance towards the state of modern commercial news photography, with its emphasis on celebrity and citizen photojournalism, with all its baggage of potential bias and free use by lazy news editors. It is an honest intention, and this book reflects that stark honesty in McCullin’s whole career.

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