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Quick hits

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m leaving, on a jet plane—specifically, on a Beech 1900D, powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprops. You can decide whether that’s a “jet plane,” or not. Anyway, the point is, here are a couple of quick links to sustain you.

Random web surfing (which I think should be called “surfage,” pronounced in the French manner, as it sounds more classy) brought me to this old 2005 interview with Don McCullin at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

And the New York Times has a piece on Tim Page and his ongoing search for the remains of his friend, Sean Flynn.

Don McCullin interview bits

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“I’m just surrounded by ghosts”

March 29, 2010 Leave a comment

… there is still something disturbing in my landscapes, because there’s something quite dark in me. It would be stupid to think you could get away with 30 or 40 years of photographing wars and death and that once you finish all the bad dreams will be done and dusted. There may not be humans in my images but there is still danger in these fields. My pictures reflect something about me. And I print them dark because my thoughts are dark.

There’s a battleground inside all of us I think. I have seen a lot of human suffering but that doesn’t mean I am a terrible miserable old man. I think I’m just surrounded by ghosts.

That’s one of several comments from Don McCullin, quoted at Ciara Leeming’s blog.

McCullin is fascinating because, unlike James Nachtwey, he doesn’t seem to have any real answers to the ethical dilemmas of his work as a war photographer. He suggests, quite candidly, that his war photography was futile, that it served no purpose, and that it wasn’t worth the risk and sacrifice. He inhabits a landscape of regret, which one is tempted to see in his dark and brooding winter landscapes. But despite this, he never did destroy his negatives, and he’s been energetically promoting his new book, Shaped by War, and his show at the Imperial War Museum North.

If I can be permitted to stroke my goatee and indulge in the kind of amateur psychoanalysis that I normally deride, perhaps his reaction is partly motivated by his own frank admission that wars, for him, were a thrill. It’s hard to maintain a stance of humanitarian concern when you admit to being an adrenalin junkie. That’s a neat explanation, but a facile one. McCullin has also said, repeatedly, that his negatives call up ghosts; it’s unlikely that anyone could photograph war, as he did, for any period of time without being troubled by it.

McCullin may just be more honest in discussing his feelings than others.

“This terrible name”

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The Guardian has an audio interview with Don McCullin:

“One of the things I loathe is being thought of as a war photographer. Of course I went to many wars, but this doesn’t mean I have to have this terrible name.”

The interview covers McCullin’s early career, his reaction to being “a war photographer,” his Biafran epiphany, and the peace he now finds in landscape photography. It’s familiar territory, if you follow McCullin, but still worth a listen.

Don McCullin landscapes

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Apropos of nothing, or at least of very little, I thought I’d point to this lovely landscape by Don McCullin.

McCullin protests continually that we should not see him merely as a “war photographer.” Instead of protesting, he should just point to work like this, which makes the case eloquently on his behalf. Unfortunately, his landscape work is harder to find — Google for it, and you’ll mostly find links to articles about his war photography, complete with protests that he’d rather be known for the pictures you can’t find.

Now you can find one — quite an accomplished one, I think. It is difficult to do landscape in black and white, in a world where landscape photography equals colour. McCullin takes it a step further by working in winter, and eschews the other landscape cliches, the vertical wide-angle shot with foreground feature, the leading lines. He works instead in tone and texture, and with that magnificent break in the sky.

Categories: don mccullin, photography

“A bit of a contradiction in many ways”

February 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It seems that these days, it’s all Don McCullin, all the time, but I suppose that’s what happens when you publish a career retrospective and have a major show the Imperial War Museum. Today I found a gallery of McCullin’s photography at the Telegraph, and a feature on McCullin at the Scotsman. The interview, although written in a gossipy, tabloid style, is interesting.

(For example, “delicious defiance?” What kind of nonsense is this? The interviewer eventually embarks on expiration of McCullin’s extramarital affairs, complete with moronic surprise that a man who had witnessed suffering could inflict suffering on his own family, etc. At that point, you can pretty much stop reading. Someone please put this interviewer out of our misery. End digression.)

McCullin is interesting because he is openly conflicted. His statements are contradictory. He says he doesn’t want to be remembered as a war photographer, but at the same time he has published a career retrospective and is giving dozens of interviews on his legacy as a war photographer. His burden of guilt and regret has not led him to destroy his negatives. To some, this would indicate that he is insincere, or that his public statements mask some consistent, secret self but he refuses to let us see. This is nonsense, of course; humans are contradictory. When what we say fails to align with what we do, it’s because the angels of our better nature have lost out to nobody’s angel. It doesn’t mean we’re insincere or disingenuous. It doesn’t mean we have something to hide.

When I started work on Combat Camera, I was fascinated by James Nachtwey. Here we have a figure who consistently appears to shine with commitment and purpose. The question to me, the question that initially defined Lucas Zane as a character, was what happens to that figure of commitment and purpose when he wakes up one morning and finds he has lost his faith. Zane was conceived as an anti-Nachtwey.

But this was unsatisfying. It came off as a caricature. It was when I looked at McCullin, when I examined his contradictions, that Zane really came to life for me. This is not to say that Lucas saying is based on McCullin, and certainly not in the direct way that Philip Caputo based his character Nick DelCorso on him. Zane bears little resemblance to McCullin in his background, his aims, is thinking about photography, and certainly not in his rather precarious mental state. But the broad-brush notion of the former war photographer attempting to repudiate his past while at the same time refusing to let go is certainly where Zane originated.

I think that a fictional character should be, to quote McCullin in the Scotsman interview, “a bit of a contradiction in many ways.”

“I don’t want to be remembered as a war photographer”

February 4, 2010 2 comments

Don McCullin is one of the most interesting of war photographers, for the thinking behind (and beyond) his photography. Unlike James Nachtwey, for example, who seems to have found a way to see his work as humane and necessary, McCullin never seems to be at ease with his own legacy.

McCullin himself offers thoughts on the subject in a BBC audio slideshow, which is worth checking out. Should he feel guilty towards his subjects? Is his work merely exploitation?

McCullin says that he doesn’t even like his own work, that he feels guilt over it … yet also that “I like the idea of showing damage, because war is not a creative situation; it is about damaging other people’s lives.” Even as he sets out to show this to us, he is aware that his photography, also, can damage people’s lives.

Nachtwey discussed his feelings on similar questions in Christian Frei’s film, War Photographer, and particularly in this excerpt:

At times, Nachtwey’s commitment, his insistence that his work can have value, seems almost too pat — although, of course, this involves assumptions that are unfair to Nachtwey. But McCullin’s view of his work and ethics is so candid, and so conflicted, that he remains endlessly fascinating.

Don McCullin on London’s homeless

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

The BBC pulls from its archives a short film by Don McCullin (and featuring McCullin’s photography) on the growing problem of the homeless in London, in 1989.

It’s worth watching, even twenty-one years after the fact — in part because it suggests strongly that we weren’t paying attention then, because we’re in the same place now.

And I don’t think we’re paying attention now. Technology has brought upon us the age of choose-your-own-news; we see what we want to see. For evidence of that, look to the right on the BBC’s page and see not only the most popular videos, but also the “editor’s choice.”

Time was, newspaper readers consistently preferred photographs of fluffy bunnies, children playing in sprinklers, and scantily clad young women frolicking on the beach. News editors, on the other hand, consistently chose hard-hitting photos that they felt the public needed to see, sensitive dispositions be damned. (Editors also liked shots of scantily clad young women frolicking on the beach, but they usually didn’t mistake them for news.)

Today, readers choose “Plane lands on New Jersey road,” “Pyjamas-wearer on her Tesco ban,” and various hard-hitting items on the Grammy awards and the trials of Brangelina; editors, on the other hand, choose … hard hitting items on the Grammy awards, Brangelina, and some nonsense about a dancing traffic cop.

Watch Don McCullin’s piece instead.

Dodging clichés on the front line

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment

DelCorso’s Gallery, by Philip Caputo. (I’m too lazy to look up the original information.)

I’m a bit late reviewing a novel published in 1983, but I have my reasons. Someone recommended it to me based on the subject of my own upcoming book, and I scribbled down the title and kept it in the back of my mind until last week, when a copy turned up in a used bookstore in Edmonton. Caputo won a Pulitzer, right? Reading it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Caputo was in Vietnam as a soldier, and later as a journalist, so he has no shortage of authority on his topic. But his Pulitzer was for a memoir; this novel isn’t anywhere near that league. It’s just plain clumsy.

Former combat photographer Nick DelCorso has retired into a quieter career in commercial photography, but that old itch refuses to fade. When he’s offered a job covering the final NorthVietnamese assault on Saigon, he can’t pass it up. Off he goes, leaving wife and family, to battle what the cliché mongers sell as “personal demons” in the streets of Saigon. DelCorso can’t rest until he atones for his past.

How clumsy can it get? Consider this, as the press corps huddles in a hallway during an air raid: “The terrifying noises had stripped them of the mask of cynical nonchalance war correspondents usually wear to conceal their true feelings, if they have any.”

Sentences like this abound.

There is no point Caputo is unwilling to drive home with a sledgehammer. When he isn’t telling us how things are, he’s explaining his characters’ improbably lucid thoughts. And when his characters aren’t thinking, they’re making little speeches to each other, such as this conversation, in a brothel:

“First it’s Biafra this, Belfast that, then it’s so many piasters for a short-time, so many for all night. It’s all bullshit.”

“Exactly what is bullshit?”

“This is, we are. We call ourselves photographers, photojournalists when we get high-toned about it, but what are we really? Mercenaries who carry cameras instead of guns.”

Wilson rolled his eyes.

So did the reader, reflecting that “This is, we are” was a fine bit of technical flash: the characters commenting on the author’s text. It’s a postmodern masterpiece!

Perhaps not.

Unfortunately, Caputo can’t find ways to dramatize his ideas effectively. Everything must be explained; nothing arises through the action itself. It’s too bad, because the novel tries to explore war photography and our changing attitudes towards war in an interesting way.

DelCorso seems to be a composite of Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, two of the new wave of war photographers that arose out of Vietnam. His arch-rival and former mentor, Dunlop, recalls David Douglas Duncan (who is never mentioned in the text), whose career took off in an earlier era.

Dunlop’s war looks heroic, DelCorso’s squalid and ugly; Dunlop is an artifact of WWII, and DelCorso belongs indisputably to Vietnam. Dunlop wants to find meaning in war, and show it to the reader. DelCorso wants to assault the reader’s complacent assumptions. To DelCorso, Dunlop is a fossil; to Dunlop, our hero is a pornographer.

The novel continually touches on all the questions that plague war photography: exploitation, responsibility, the pornography of violence. It’s unfortunate that it can’t find a more effective dramatic footing.

Don McCullin

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment

The BBC has an interview with the celebrated war photographer Don McCullin, who once said that he “used to chase wars like a drunk chases a can of lager,” and is best known to the public perhaps for his harrowing photographs from Biafra. McCullin left war photography behind and is now known for his landscape work, and also for recent work on AIDS in Africa. He’s ambivalent about his fame:

… a very famous war photographer – an American – said … ‘I’m going to be the next Don McCullin.’ And quite honestly, he’s welcome to be where I was, he can’t be me; but anybody’s welcome to those laurels; they’re rather kind of worn out and faded, those laurels; they’ve gone.

Elsewhere, he has said that he considers his career to have been a waste, and that his photographs had no impact on the world.

How much his past still haunts him seems open to question:

I published a book a few years ago and I called it, Sleeping with Ghosts, because I know that when I’m in my house and I’m down one end of it asleep, down the other end there’s all these filing cabinets with this raucous noise going on down there. I mean, obviously it sounds to you as though I’m slightly barking, but I’m not. I’m totally in control of myself, and hopefully, I’ll try and play some part in my destiny. But I know that living in that house, there is some mischief going on, down where those filing cabinets lie. You can’t have that material, that energy in a house or in a place, without something going on down there.

The interview is definitely worth reading, or listening to.

So is this one:

… working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself : “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.”

Four years ago, the Guardian did a good profile of McCullin, which is also worth reading.

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