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.
… 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.