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  • Writer's pictureDavid Corfield

Don McCullin: the consequence of truth

Much has been written about Sir Don McCullin over the years and I've interviewed him a few times for various magazines. As the BBC screens a film on his return to Syria with historian Dan Cruickshank this Bank Holiday Monday, I thought the time was right to revisit this interview with him about his life and his work. Originally published on the Canon Professional Network in April 2016.

Sir Don McCullin photographed by David Corfield in Somerset, 2016

“I’m on the edge of the volcano. I’m standing on the precipice looking into the lava...” admits Don McCullin metaphorically, remarking on how he sees this chapter of his extraordinary life. A very special three-volume retrospective of his work is due to be released soon. It’s taken two years to complete and, for McCullin, represents the very best of his photography. Called ‘Irreconcilable Truths’ the title is a nod to the soul-searching that went into the project as recollections of atrocities resurfaced through his developer. It’s not been an easy journey, reliving some of those memories...

“There are some images that I will never print again, because I don’t think I’m able to,” he explains, citing one image in particular – of the starving albino boy taken in Biafra nearly 50 years ago. The memory, and the image, haunts him to this day.

Described by his old boss Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, as ‘a conscience with a camera’, McCullin’s life has been defined by conflict since childhood; from the East End gangs of bombed-out, post-war London to adult years spent photographing conflict across the world, the solace of the darkroom has long been the place to which he has retreated, in order to deal with his demons. It’s been a therapy, and continues to be so...

The magic of the print

“People have always said that the darkroom is my womb, and I suppose that’s true,” he muses. “I like the consistency of the dark. It keeps me safe. I know that when I’m out taking photographs I’m already thinking about being home in the darkroom. But I’ve never betrayed what I set out to do. I just keep doing what I’m doing.”

He continues: “I feel I’m in a forge. I’m hammering that piece of hot iron, and that’s what I’m doing with my photography because when I’m finally finished, I wont be able to bring my arm down to hit that metal any more. Photography takes a lot out of me. It always has.”

Critics have long suggested that McCullin ‘feels’ his images, rather than takes them. And he recognises that. “Photography isn’t about just pushing that button,” he rues. “It’s about the experience of being there. I bring to my photography the principles of my mind and what I’m trying to do. I’m bringing the direction of who I am and what I’ve seen. I’m bringing my identity to it with my printing and my composition.”

He acknowledges one of his early influences, Henri Carier-Bresson. “He was the one who, for my money, taught everybody else composition,” he states. “I was with his brother-in-law the other day who came to my house, a man called Franck, [Eric Franck, who owns a fine-art gallery in London]. He looks after the Cartier-Bresson archive now.”

“But I don't have time to do all that documenting – and I willfully don’t do things that people take for granted either, like how to use a mobile phone. I know I’ve been a bit lazy and it will come back to haunt me. Like one day, for instance, when they shut the local railway station down, I don’t think I’ll be able to buy a ticket from the machine...”

A conversation with McCullin takes many twists and turns, as memories resurface and recollections shift momentarily back into sharp focus. He’s often seen as a dark character, and as much as he recognises and accepts that, he’s also at pains to point out that he likes to enjoy life too...

“I don’t do any printing in the summer months, really, because I like to enjoy holidays and sunshine and be with my youngest son Max. That’s the thing about getting old, you want to be warm all the time, and the darkroom (an old coal shed at the end of his house) can get a bit damp and unforgiving in the winter.”

But when he is printing, he’s as dedicated now as he always has been. “You have to keep your hand in,” he reflects, “Because if you don’t go into the darkroom for a bit you tend to find you make mistakes. You do really silly things. I am almost amused by the mistakes I make these days. The other day I was focusing the grain on the baseboard with my ‘ScopoNet’ [print focuser] and I realised I hadn’t put the bloody red filter back in before making the exposure, so I’d ruined that sheet of paper. Every time I do that it costs me £25...”

Working alone

Assignments over the years would usually involve McCullin embedded with a journalist. Working with other photographers never really appealed. In fact McCullin has scant regard for many of his contemporaries...

“William Klein tried it on with me once,” he remarks. “He’s a cantankerous old sod really. I met him twice in my life and on the last occasion he tried to wind me up – as he does with everybody – but I could see it was a form of endearment and he wasn’t really trying to head-butt me. Because if he did I would kick his arse back. Like all people of 85 they are all getting a bit frail. We are all a bit frail really, but I’m still hanging on. I feel like I’m a fish that’s got a hook in its mouth. When I go down the stairs in the morning I think to myself is it time to move to a bungalow yet? Are my knees creaking more than the stairs?”

“There are some photographers I don't like because I don't respect them. I don't even like their personalities. It doesn't mean that someone has to go through what I’ve been through before I respect them; it’s about what they produce. A lot of people ghost on work they stopped doing 30 years ago. I’ve got a problem with Elliot Erwitt, and I don’t care if you quote me on this, but I find him intolerably rude. You don’t get a second chance to be cheeky to me.”

The early years

We talk about the early stages of McCullin’s adulthood. The wanderlust began at an early age. With the death of his father, which affected him enormously, McCullin found himself as the family breadwinner. “I was 15, and my first job was washing dishes in the dining car of a steam train,” he remembers. “There was no washing up liquid in those days, of course. You had to get a piece of soap, stick it in a tin which had a whole load of holes in it, and then you had to froth it up to make your washing up water...”

“So I worked on this train, and it would arrive in Liverpool or Manchester and I’d walk those dark satanic cities at night and sleep in the railway siding dormitories, ready to go back the next day. That was the moment I began to understand the freedom of my life. I was on the cusp of a new world.”

The young McCullin would arrive back at Euston station late at night and walk the two miles home with his wages – £1.50 a week – recalling the sights and smells of the things he had seen in Manchester and Liverpool. “So that, and hanging out with those London gangs of boys who I’d gone to school with, was the making of me really,” he continues. “I went to do my National Service and I discovered photography with the RAF.”

We pause to examine some of his work and turn to images from one of his earliest stories, ironically an assignment he paid for himself: Berlin. “I was printing some of these Berlin pictures last week,” he admits. “I found some two-and-a-quarter square negatives from when I was there in 1961.”

The Observer arranged for him to work with the writer Patrick O’Donovan. “He was their main writer and he took me around the fleshpots at night. I had no knowledge of Berlin, but a great deal of knowledge of the war. Everywhere around me was the cold war with Russians on the other side of a breezeblock wall. I knew I was onto a bit of a winner. It was a privilege I gave to myself, not the bloody Observer...”

“But I was worried about those negatives because they hadn’t been stored very well, albeit in a huge safe in my house. The trouble is, when you worked in Fleet Street it was always ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ and as a result the negatives were processed and washed very quickly without a thought for their later care. What’s happened over the years now is that the residue of that chemistry left on them is eating away at the emulsion. The way the chemicals have destroyed the film, they leave marks that look like crushed spiders in the enlarger. I can still retouch them out but it’s becoming a bore...”

McCullin’s photographs of Berlin were published in the Observer and won him the British Press Photography Award – and with it came a contract to join the newspaper. His career was established. “That was the first sign of respect, in a way,” he muses. “And then they sent me to Cyprus where I won another award, whereupon a friend of mine called David King, who once worked on the Observer, said ‘you should work with us. Come to the Sunday Times.’ That was the real turning point. Later I met Philip Jones Griffiths and got rid of my Rolleicord and started shooting in 35mm.”

We talk cameras momentarily. “I tell you something,” he smiles: “very often looking ‘down there’ [he moves as if to mimic looking through his old Rollei] works better because people are less aware. I’ll give you an example of that: I went to the Southern Omo valley in Africa a few years ago with two cameras; a medium format and a 35mm. The moment I held the 35mm camera to my face they wanted money. So I popped a wideangle lens on the medium format, looked down to focus so they thought I wasn’t actually taking a picture, and got them all for free...”

Advice and a “terrible bollocking...”

McCullin has always remained steadfastly true to his own code and was never given much advice from his picture editors. “It was very often me giving them advice,” he jokes. “I remember being given a terrible bollocking once by Ken Obank, the Editor of the Observer at the time. I was asked to photograph Harold Wilson being interviewed by the paper’s big political commentator of the day, Kenneth Harris, and was told ‘you will be given a signal as to when to take the photograph.’

“I was positioned on Westminster Bridge with a long lens as they were having their meeting on the House of Commons verandah. But a huge gust of wind erupted and suddenly Harold Wilson’s hair was all over the place. So Harris gets up and with his comb starts combing it! Well for me that was the photograph. I rattled off a few frames and got the guys in the darkroom to print off a few 20x16s. The next thing I knew I was being summoned to the managing editor’s office and given a right dressing down. He chopped up the negatives in front of me and in a way I realised that I had stepped over the line. I needed to have some moral compass. Even though it was an inspirational move on my part photographically, it very nearly got me kicked out.”

The journey into digital

McCullin is a died-in-the-wool film man and loves his beloved Tri-X (“do you want some?”); old habits die hard when it comes to teaching him new tricks but he’s the first to remark on his appreciation of modern digital cameras. An introduction to the EOS 5D Mark III in 2012 – and the resulting ‘Seeking the Light’ CPN film made of his journey into digital photography – opened his eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. “I just wished I had these Canons when I was a younger man,” he reflects. “My life would have been far easier with a lot less stuff to carry.”

He refers to the final section of his book and recent projects from India, Iraq and Syria that feature work taken digitally. “The sharpness cuts you like a knife,” he remarks. “It really is incredible, almost too real...” But the 5D Mark III has certainly given him a shot in the arm for new work and new horizons and he was even featured in The Times sporting a brace of 5Ds around his neck when we went to Aleppo in Syria with writer Anthony Loyd in 2012.

Irreconcilable Truths

We turn to the subject of my visit, McCullin’s latest – and possibly his last – book. He has spent weeks and months with his printers, a company local to him called Opal, and together they have painstakingly worked at reproducing his black & white images to an incredibly high standard. It’s a limited edition run of only 1000, all numbered and personally signed, consisting of three volumes of work: his war and reportage, his landscapes and still life and an updated version of ‘Unreasonable Behaviour,’ the autobiography that was both cathartic for him, and compelling for the reader.

Has revisiting memories from long ago helped lay old ghosts to rest? “No.” Has the project rewarded him in other ways? “Most definitely. I look at all these images (there are over 700 in the book) and first of all I can’t believe I took them all. And secondly I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the hard work the team here have put into it. The detail is incredible in my landscapes (his real passion now) and the shadow detail they have managed to extract is remarkable.”

“I’ve learned a lot coming here. I realise that some of my other books, like some I have had printed in China, are absolute rubbish compared to this one. I’m so thrilled about the pictures now. The care that has gone into the whole exercise is amazing. We started off with duotones and I just wasn’t happy with the depth of black I needed. So in the end they added yellow and that has really made the difference.”

McCullin examines the page proofs as they come off Opal’s Heidelberg digital press. He’s as obsessed with the quality of the proofs as he is his actual prints, but thanks to the expert eyes of the team around him – who have become loyal advocates of his work – he’s reassured that they have taken his quality to heart.

“I’ve had some really bad experiences with printers in the past,” he admits. “What worried me all along about this project was all my prints getting damaged. But I haven’t had to worry at all. I have seen the process with my own eyes and if you can get that kind of respect from somebody, then I will show that respect in return.”

“I know nothing about computers and Photoshop,” he admits. “But they have tried not to take too many liberties. They have retained my original vision and have used modern technologies and approaches to make the images as good as they are. I never thought in a million years there was a company as good as this in England.”

“These guys have scanned my work so well and retouched all my bad spotting, that I can’t believe the quality. What’s really nice about it, though, is that the project is a combination of designers, scanners, printers and not just myself. I have learned in a way that I am vulnerable as a photographer but the technology these guys have shown me has actually worked to my advantage.”

“This is going to be the ultimate thing for me. This is what I am going to hold up and say ‘this is the best of my working life.’ I’ve dreamed of a day like this...”

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