Don McCullin

Conflict. Time. Photography @ Tate Modern

The current exhibition of “conflict” photography at the Tate is something I shall describe as “interesting”. I can see the point of the curatorial concept, which deals with the passing of time since the conflict and the changing ways that photographers deal with the conflict. Or the aftermath of the conflict at least. I’m not sure it particularly hangs together well though – it’s disjointed and random in my eyes, despite the applied logic of the groupings. I’m sure others will disagree with me, but that’s simply my overall thought.

At the start, there’s Luc Delaheye’s 
US Bombing on Taliban positions (2001), printed large as I expected it to be (and was, if truth be told, slightly disappointed with as it was quite “soft”), next to Toshio Fukada’s The Mushroom Cloud – Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1945) and Don McCullin’s iconic Shell-Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hué (1968). Three differing images (although there were 4 of the atomic bomb) , grouped together that perhaps should have been the way forward, even if this would then certainly match my “random and disjointed” opinion even more than the actual exhibition! But what you actually get is a little body of work here, another different one there, lots of images, a couple of images, something else… chop-change groups. Enough to pause and appreciate the body of work, but then the next wall was something different, time to reset the mind and recalibrate the visual receptors in my brain.
US Bombing on Taliban Positions (2001) Luc Delahaye

Having said that, if I approach it as a lot of individual exhibitions and try and ignore the time thing, there were a number of them that were a joy to view, for varying reasons. Jumping straight to the one that I enjoyed viewing the most, Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu (1965) – The Map – featured the work in 4 different sections, reproductions from the book form, together with a copy of the book (I didn’t check, but presumably from the somewhat impressive collection of Martin Parr – the other Japanese books on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were his), a small number of large prints that were also featured in the Metamorphosis exhibition in Liverpool, a copy of each image from the book displayed in a large grid and a number of large book-like reproductions of the patina from the walls of what is now the Atomic Bomb Dome that was metres from the hypocentre of the Hiroshima bomb. As with what appears to be the majority of Japanese photobook images from this era, there are rich, dark and inky blacks that draw my eye deep into the photograph. The subject matter is all relating to the war, memorial and defeat – bedraggled flags, photographs of fallen soldiers and the destruction of the city. There is nothing celebratory here, and the depth of the images is entirely appropriate and sombre. Seeing the “ultimate photobook-as-object” was a thrill, even though flicking through the pages was not a possibility. The one interesting curatorial juxtaposition was walking from this room of deep blacks to Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s low contrast, New Topographics inspired Kurchatov – Architecture of a Nuclear Test Site (2012). Differing styles, but perhaps also a differing outlook, with Kawada (and Japan in general) heavily affected by the death of circa 185000 people in the two bombings.
Chizu (1965) Kikuji Kawada

Kurchatov – Architecture of a Nuclear Test Site (2012) Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

Another room I was impressed with was Sophie Ristelhueber’s Fait (1992). Individually, there weren’t many images that would have captured my imagination, other than for any possible connections with mapping that comes from the aerial viewpoint of many of the images. As an installation which dominates the room with yet another grid of large images, some black and white, others colour but all predominantly monochromatic (grey or sandy brown), the effect is mesmerising. Sitting down and looking up to take in the full effect, there are multiple juxtapositions going on – the colours for one, but also of scale, with some aerial shots, others close-up. Some of the images are individually interesting, others less so. Some images sparse in detail, others not. It’s confusing amidst the simplicity of the images, but I think that’s why it works. The sum of parts – an holistic installation that I sat for a while to take in.

Simon Norfolk’s set of images are a
sublime depiction of the aftermath of war and might potentially be considered controversial. Is it the “right thing” to do, making what would be considered beautiful images if you took the conflict nature away from them? The colour of the skies, if over a more traditional landscape, might feasibly adorn the walls of “normal” living rooms across the country (as opposed to those of collectors), but above bullet riddled walls and controlled explosions, does it give a wrong impression? Or does it make people stop and think again after years of media saturation? Well worth viewing, and a potential for buying in book form at some point.

Broomberg and Chanarin make a couple of appearances in the exhibition, firstly with 
The Press Conference, June 9, 2008, The Day Nobody Died and later with People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011). Both are really quite conceptual, with The Day Nobody Died being totally abstract and I guess it will appeal to some. People in Trouble is altogether more interesting to me; small details of images previously hidden under stickers in the Belfast Exposed archive of “the Troubles”. Displaced from their original context, the images (yet again arranged in a large grid – this year’s standard layout?) provide a series of port-holes into scenes we can only really guess at – random details of people fighting, abstract arrangements of furniture and body parts. Alongside this was a single large photograph of some kind of street battle with milk, and image that tickled me once I saw the four pints of milk, caught mid-flight…
People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011) Broomberg and Chanarin–Chanarin–005.jpg

The last set of images I will discuss is Chloe Dewe Mathews Shot at Dawn. The last room of the exhibition has four of her images; they could be anywhere in Europe (and possibly further afield too), mundane snippets of landscape photographed in the early morning light which infuses them with an air of melancholy and, once the context is known and understood, of silent remembrance of soldiers executed for suffering the psychological of warfare and watching their closest friends being killed in action. Thankfully these photographs were also printed large, with a bench before them to allow the viewer to sit, take in all four at once and contemplate. So impressive were these that I bought the book of the collection in the gallery shop.

There were some that didn’t work for me, or at least asked a different type of question. Why were some of the large images printed so large? Was it to make them “feel” like art that should’ve been in a gallery (some of the black & white images in particular)? There also seemed to be a few too many that seemed to follow the style of the New Topographics, although to be fair, some of these might have been due to when the images were taken. There were also some prints in glass clip frames, which struck me as being odd, although it did allow for the images to be unbroken in their stream from one to the next – something to consider perhaps?

As a final point, on leaving the exhibition there’s a large McCullin landscape of the Somme on the wall of the rest area next to the coffee shop and bookshop. It’s dark and grainy, it carries all the weight of McCullin’s experiences as a war photographer within it. A fitting closure.

The Battlefields of the Somme, France (2000) Don McCullin


I’ve just watched the documentary McCullin, an amazingly powerful film, filled with... beautiful yet horrific photography. I feel quite stunned by it. Not sure what to say...
I have a small number of books by Don McCullin, 2 or 3, and visited the IWM exhibition a few years ago, but this has proven more thought provoking than anything I’ve experienced of his work before, perhaps because it now coincides with a period of specific thinking about his subject. It really is time to revisit his work again.

McCullin. 2012 [Blu-Ray] Jacqui Morris and David Morris. British Film Company