Tonic Icons – Sir Don McCullin
Sir Don McCullin was raised in Finsbury Park, leaving school without qualifications following the death of his father before being assigned a photographer’s assistant role upon failing the written theory part of his application to become an RAF photographer. It was here that he honed his craft, spending the majority of his time in the darkroom developing the skills that would amplify his journalistic images beyond the pages of the weekly magazines of many of the national newspapers.
It was this same post-war Finsbury Park landscape that would get a young McCullin his first break, submitting his image of The Guvnors, a local gang in their Sunday best on a bombed out street to be published in The Observer magazine during a time of civil unrest. His gritty depictions of life in the UK would eventually see him deployed domestically and further afield to cover many of the world’s bloodiest conflicts and epidemics such as famine & HIV.
Armed with his camera and being situated in London during the 1960s also provided the opportunity to capture one of the most exciting periods of popular British culture, which would see his images used in Michelangelo Antonini’s Blow Up in 1968. It was during this same year that his camera would famously save his life, taking a bullet intended for him a shown in the image below. On a slightly lighter note he would also be invited to photograph The Beatles during the recording of The White Album which would go onto to be published in his 2010 book A Day in the Life of the Beatles.
All of these brushes with celebrity however were afforded to McCullin by his bravery to place himself in the face of danger & shed light on the atrocities inflicted by the human race. This in itself has continued to provide him with a moral dilemma; being placed in a situation with a camera when he could intervene and attempt to make a difference. If however, he were to put his camera down he may miss one of the most important moments that could be captured to inspire a real change in the proceedings of that conflict or pandemic and how it is viewed in the wider world.
One of the key aspects of McCullin’s work is how audiences are able to relate to them, partly due to his printing methods, they go beyond the pages of the weekly news publications and just as easily hang on the walls of galleries. His success has been celebrated widely which has culminated in receiving his knighthood in 2017, the BAFTA-nominated documentary McCullin (2012) and the current retrospective exhibition of his work at Tate Britain.
At the age of 83, he also recently collaborated with the BBC’s architectural historian to revisit the desecrated UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra and document the damage caused at the hands of ISIS in The Road To Palmyra.