Don McCullin: A Tate Britain Retrospective / Review & Thoughts


The gallery is busy, but a strange hush has fallen upon the onlookers. People only speak in whispers, as if the photographs can hear your conversations. The atmosphere is one of respect and appreciation. Don McCullin’s work has captured the emotions of the crowd. The spectrum of humanity shown in the images commands the room to silently observe. Haunting, powerful and desperate; the photography moves you in its harsh reality. The onlookers slowly shuffle around the gallery in lines, following the narrative of each of Don’s collections. You either leave overwhelmed or amazed by humanities’ ability to bitterly endure.

Donald “Don” McCullin, is an internationally renowned British photojournalist, particularly recognised for his war photography and images of urban struggles. His career has specialised in examining the underside of society, and his photographs have depicted the unemployed, downtrodden and the impoverished. He is perhaps most famous for his war photography, which he went to great lengths to capture, cementing himself as one of Britain’s Photography Greats.

‘This exhibition showcases some of the most impactful photographs captured over the last 60 years. It includes many of his iconic war photographs – including images from Vietnam, Northern Ireland and more recently Syria. But it also focuses on the work he did at home in England, recording scenes of poverty and working class life in London’s East End and the industrial north, as well as meditative landscapes of his beloved Somerset, where he lives.’ - Tate Britain

“Sometimes it felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.” - Don McCullin

In this retrospective at the Tate Britain, there are an overwhelming number of photographs. One after another, room after room; the pace, suffering and impact never relents. The grey walled rooms housing the framed, mostly black and white, images, bleed into the next. The exhibition takes you on a journey through Don McCullin’s life, a man who has borne witness to too much. The ‘too much’ is evident here. You end up experiencing ‘too much’ if you slowly dissect every image on offer. The exhibition is as demanding on you as it is engrossing.

As we walk through the gallery, we are exposed to unrelenting scenes of ‘trespass and tragedy’, leaving us unable to process the scale of the mounting horrors. As a viewer, you are left to face your own voyeurism. All you can do is view and never understand, no matter how many images you are exposed to.

McCullin’s photographs create a visceral feeling in its onlookers, both because of their content and their traditional, analogue tonalities. The blacks and greys are deep and cutting, whilst the whites are muted yet offer great clarity. His darkroom processing is consistent in style across his work, even his Somerset landscapes are darkly burned. The focus, always intentional, draws your eyes around each photograph, encouraging you to absorb every necessary detail. McCullin photographed largely in black and white, with some colour work being produced for the Sunday Times. The choice to use black and white has stripped his images of any glamour that colour may generate. It emphasises the sullen, stark and veracious mood. His images do more than just record human strife.

A fantastic programme, now found on iPlayer; Don McCullin: Looking For England, helps to both understand the man and his approach to photography. Click here to see the programme (if you are in the UK).

Click here if you want to book tickets to see the exhibition (if you are 16-25, you can get a FREE Tate Collective Pass, meaning you can get £5 tickets!) it is on 5 February – 6 May 2019.