One of the world’s great war photographers, Britain’s Don McCullin announced in 2003 that he was putting that world behind him and would now devote what today he calls “the last piece” of his life’s work to “showing the more beautiful side of my capabilities.” From now on, he said, his camera would be trained mostly on the Somerset countryside that had entranced him since the early 1980s and where, after numerous failed romances, he was living in quiet comfort with his third wife, Catherine, and their baby son, Max.
Flash forward to just before this past Christmas, though, and would you have found the 77-year-old Mr. McCullin, who had major heart surgery only a couple of years ago, traipsing about rural England, looking at wind-shorn trees through a viewfinder? No. He was in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, taking photographs for The Times of London, determined to see if he “could just take up the sword again.”
He had a thoroughly miserable time. “When I got there, right off I thought, why have you done this? What’s made you come here? It hasn’t changed. It’s as ugly as it ever was and just as unnecessary.” And yet, having covered conflicts in Cyprus, Congo, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Lebanon, El Salvador and elsewhere since 1964, “it felt very familiar. Like walking into your favourite slippers or sitting in your favourite chair.
“There was no food . . . I slept on a concrete floor in some shattered building for six days.” And “ almost immediately I became the near-victim of a sniper who put two rounds across the top of my helmet . . . Running across the road on 77-year-old legs with a bulletproof jacket weighing 25 pounds is not easy.”
Mr. McCullin is telling this harrowing tale from the safety of an office in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Starting Friday and running through April 14, the gallery is hosting a retrospective of the rich and varied McCullin oeuvre – 134 prints in total, from his earliest photojournalistic work in down-and-out London in the late 1950s to the sweeping, moody landscapes of recent years.
It’s not the first time Mr. McCullin has found his photographs “lording it in art galleries.” Nevertheless, he still admits to being “slightly uncomfortable” seeing works done years ago for the ephemera of newspapers and magazines under the same roof as paintings by Van Gogh and Rembrandt. “Then again, what should be done with them? Should they be left lying in yellow boxes in my house? I have 5,000 prints in my place, 60,000 negatives. They can lie there and rot and not be seen any more. But I feel if I get a chance to legitimately bring them into the public eye again . . . if this museum gets another 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 people walking in front of my pictures and some go away with a restructured thinking about the state of the world and they become doctors or something useful, well, I’m winning a small battle, aren’t I?”
Just don’t call him an artist: “I totally disassociate myself from that term. I’m happy to be called a photographer.”
Unsurprisingly, after seeing what he’s seen over a half-century, Mr. McCullin readily admits to being a poor sleeper. “I have re-occurring dreams. Strangely enough, when I went to war, it was bad dreams like people putting a pistol to my face and pulling the trigger. But now the re-occurring dream is that I come back to the office in London and beg the indulgence of the editor who sent me, telling him the assignment didn’t work out. It’s about me failing. And I think this dream of failure is because I’m constantly trying to better what I’ve already done.”
He pauses, then adds: “Psychology plays an enormous part in the lives of human beings who don’t go to war but when you do, boy, does that complicate things.”