‘I am tired of guilt…’

Study event to ‘Don McCullin’ at Tate Britain, 20 April 2019

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.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.’

(Don McCullin)

What is a gallery like the Tate Britain for, other than a place to display art objects? You go to be educated, don’t you? Tate certainly presents itself as such, so I took it at face value and shared a chapter from Susie Linfield’s ‘A Cruel Radiance’ on the study visit forum thread beforehand. Linfield writes elegantly about how photographs of suffering contain both a dialectic – ‘this is so’ and by implication ‘this must not be’; and a paradox – photography has made violence more visible but that exposure hasn’t translated into action. But my first thought when confronted with the exhibition was how irrelevant this text appeared to the actual experience of looking at the photographs. Both were an experience of reading, but I realised that you can’t use Linfield to approach McCullin. You just read Linfield and then you read McCullin. I wanted to read McCullin ‘from the beginning’.

But how do we read it? I’d suggest that we’re supposed to have a private experience of reading, and this is actually reflected in most of the online reviews I’ve seen. At ‘Don McCullin’ you’re not supposed to think so much as feel. But the other function of an art gallery, besides educating us, is surely to provide a public space for debate and criticism. And I’d like to concentrate on that part now, rather than the private response, because what is there to say about our private responses to those photographs except that they’re valid?

In the public space of the exhibition it seems to me that there are three things – the images of suffering (I’m not going to worry about the other work at the fringes, seasides and such like, because it becomes far too complicated), Don McCullin himself, and the Tate. Don McCullin is the easiest – we already know him well from a slew of biographical portraits over the last few years in print, film and TV, and now from carefully chosen quotations on the text panels surrounding the work. An Englishman; a product of his generation (he reminds me of my own father – same time, same place). Seems like a nice guy. Complicated, like all of us. Trying to make sense, make meaning. Seen things we’ve never seen and wouldn’t want to see…

Except we do see – in his photographs, which are presented as fine art prints. The reason for saying that we’re supposed to read them as fine art are pretty clear and are nothing to do with them being in an art gallery – the definition of art is still open isn’t it? Rather the low lighting, the museum mounts and frames, and most of all the wall texts. Example –

‘The ethical dilemma involved in producing beauty from tragedy has been a concern for the field of photography almost from its inception’.

This is the Tate now, making curatorial decisions about how to present the work (and itself) in the text panels, and in a few other ways of course, notably the educational events surrounding the show. Yes, they are careful to provide evidence of the original ‘channel’ for the images as well – you can’t change the viewing mode so easily. Sunday Times editions from the period in the vitrines and an audio-visual presentation, together with a kind of basic history lesson of 20th century conflict in the wall texts, makes this a historical show as well as an art exhibition.  

I’ve spent quite a long time reading and thinking about the wall panel texts during and after the show and probably the Tate is a master of subtlety because I wasn’t quite getting what it wanted to say. So eventually I decided to try a technique that I sometimes use when listening to politicians or the news. It was invented by Isaac Asimov in his classic science fiction novel ‘Foundation’. I’m not pretending it’s academic.

Mayor Hardin is addressing the Board.

‘You see, there is a branch of human knowledge known as symbolic logic, which can be used to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language’.

‘What about it?’ said Fulham.

‘I applied it. Among other things, I applied it to this document here.’

Hardin removed a few sheets of paper from the pad under his arm and spread them out. ‘I didn’t do this myself, by the way,’ he said. ‘Muller Holk of the Division of Logic has his name signed to the analyses, as you can see.’

The treaty ran through five pages of fine print and the analysis was scrawled out in just under half a page.

‘As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:

‘Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!

‘Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!’

Again the five followed the reasoning anxiously, checking carefully back to the treaty, and when they were finished, Pirenne said in a worried fashion, ‘That seems to be correct.’

Now of course I’m not suggesting who Anacreon or the Empire might be in this fictive or metaphorical example. That’s part of the critical debate I suppose. I’m also not saying that I thought the photographs themselves were ‘meaningless’, because in the galleries and in the café afterwards we shared our private responses to individual photographs in the way that was intended. I was enriched by that and I hope others were too. But I do wonder why the Tate chose to present the work in that way. Surely it can only be that they (and McCullin) wanted to neutralise them in some way. I think they may have succeeded.

All the wall texts are online at https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/don-mccullin/don-mccullin-exhibition-guide

‘Photojournalism and Human Rights’ by Susie Linfield is on the forum thread here:

https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/don-mccullin-at-tate-britain-on-saturday/9676

Lewis Bush’s review of ‘Don McCullin’ on Disphotic is here:

https://www.disphotic.com/nihilistic-photojournalism-don-mccullin-at-tate/

Image: Don McCullin, Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961,Tate © Don McCullin.

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6 Comments

  1. Simon Chirgwin 13 May 2019 at 11:52 am

    Oh God! Foundation (and the other two original ones) – something else to add to my list of stuff to re-read…

    Reply
  2. neilBsEYVblog 14 May 2019 at 10:28 am

    Hi there, yes I agree, having really looked forward to the exhibition, afterwards I wasn’t quite sure what I’d made of it all. I remember thinking at the time ‘there’s so many people here’ and yes I know, ‘duh, it’s an exhibition at Tate Britain’ and I am a little bit ‘Mr Pooter goes to a gallery’ but even so I was still taken aback at so many people wanting to see so many harrowing images, and then you ask how many images ‘in’ before they stop being harrowing and become just interesting and then because of the shear volume of images your trying to take in, they may have lost some of their punch altogether, becoming hermetically sealed, becoming Art and no longer the Comment a smaller exhibition may have retained. Although I’m still not sure, maybe it’s the only way you could show a photographer of his standing and also the comment McCullin has made with many of his images are now events from the past, are they historical document have they become art?

    Reply
  3. nathalieduncan 14 May 2019 at 6:14 pm

    When I passed through the doors at the end of the Don McCullin photography exhibition, the salesperson at the desk asked if I enjoyed the exhibition. He quickly withdrew the word ‘enjoy’. I understood why. He withdrew the word because of the harrowing scenes and images of war. Actually, I did enjoy the exhibition because I recognise that McCullin is more than ‘paparazzi,’ he is an artist.

    He has documented the effects of war for those who wish to know; what really happens. As well as documenting images, he has a flair and expertise for composition. He seemed to instinctively be in the right place at the right time. McCullin’s job it seems to me is to tell/show the world (for those who wish to know or who don’t want to know) what war, hunger, poverty death… really looks like. In my opinion, he is an artist with a camera; but not in the vain sense of the word because his photographic images are seared and have scared his mind. Like all good artist, his work makes you question and ponder certain things, to see things from a sympathetic view, or see the juxtaposed humour in something such as the relief on a soldier’s face when a thrown grenade was previously moments away from him…

    Some might argue that it’s his use of media; gelatin silver on paper to print his photos; that is taking advantage by blurring the boundary between… the tragic and ‘beautiful’. Some have questioned, Is it right to create for us to see or witness ‘fantastic’ images of people in abject states of poverty or wretchedness? War or poverty is never a ‘pretty’ thing to see but for some strange unknown reason, I am able to marry up the tension between the paradox. What is it we are complaining about? The desired effect from a particular photographer who laboriously and patiently uses ground up glass in his printing process for daring to take images of the dead and dying, that are hauntingly ‘beautiful’. Surely, why can’t a photographer do both? Would I feel the same way if he used a Polaroid? In my opinion, I think his attention to detail, his expensive photographic printing process gives the appropriate proper value to those whom society regards as unfortunate, worthless, too poor, or those we deem unworthy of a second thought; some semblance of human dignity. What is the message the photographer wants to deliver? Least their plight deserves a second, serious look at what is really happening…

    Reply
  4. nuala513668 17 May 2019 at 6:50 am

    Wish I could have visited this exhibition – glad I couldn’t fro all the reasons you and Lewis Bush highlighted and I hate exhibitions that are crowded as I end up looking at the reaction of the visitors…..

    Reply
  5. jonathan515050 17 May 2019 at 1:22 pm

    A thought-provoking review. My blog piece is here (https://land515050.home.blog/2019/03/10/don-mccullin/) but I would add to the discussion by highlighting the following aspects. Firstly the exhibition has been hugely popular, with stellar reviews and at least one comment I heard that it was “the best photography exhibition I’ve ever seen.” Although there are obvious frustrations with the crowds it could be considered a good thing for photography. McCullin’s state quoted in the exhibition “I want people to look at my photographs. I don’t want them to be rejected because people can’t look at them. Often they are atrocity pictures. Of course they are. But I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures. I want the voice to seduce people into actually hanging on a bit longer when they look at them, so they go away not with an intimidating memory but with a conscious obligation” possibly stems from their original context as news, but also relates to the personal response described above and perhaps to the appeal of the exhibition. So I think from McCullin’s point of view, job done. He as always seem himself as a photographer, not an artist. But for someone with a humble background it may be understandable to take up the opportunity to monetise the archive, particularly with the amount of establishment stroking that probably goes along with that. So the Tate’s role here is very interesting. They recently acquired a large set of pictures, all printed (as they were keen to point out) by McCullin. Yet I believe many of his most recent prints presented by galleries were produced by an expert printer under his supervision, due to his advancing years (at least this is what I have been told by Hamiltons). As with other of the Tate’s comments I think what we are seeing “live” as it were, is a historical progression in these documents towards accepted and valued art. The Tate comments justify the exhibition, neutralise (as mentioned above) the atrocity concerns but also underpin the value of their investment. It is useful to step aside and see this process objectively, but I agree with the conclusion that the Tate have succeeded with an exhibition “hit” that also presents some excellent photographs.

    Reply

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