‘This is How it Is’ ? Telling New Stories
‘This is How it Is’, was the name given to Don McCullin’s photoessay that covered the advance on Hué in 1968 during the Vietnam War [i], and comes from a succession of similarly succinct and matter of fact titles and headlines that, throughout the history of photojournalism from conflict zones, have bluntly and unsentimentally introduced images of the worst evidence of human behaviour. Many of us are familiar with Don McCullin’s images from his long career which, justifiably, endure for not just their content, but for his ability to relate to such horror with formal sensibility. Such images are firmly planted in the canon of ‘great’ photographs of the twentieth century, but within the scope of McCullin’s broader body of work, they are perhaps exceptional: many of McCullin’s photographs are actually compositionally quite ‘straight’ and visually unembellished. Like other great reportage photographers, McCullin’s work tends to simply allow the stark reality of the subject matter to provide narrative, often keeping stylization to a minimum. His greatest asset as a practitioner has been his ability to survive, to negotiate his way into and then out of situations with potentially lethal consequences, and to quite simply tell people back home ‘how it is.’
The siting of McCullin’s war photography throughout his career has mirrored, to some extent, the changing relationship that the documentary image has experienced with institutions and audiences since the Second World War. McCullin enjoyed a long succession of assignments for British broadsheet’s weekend supplements that sustained him, and published his work in generous proportions and within elegant layouts for several decades. His most recent photoessay ‘My Last War’ published in 2012, that reported on the plight of the people of Aleppo in Syria [ii], is contrasting in terms of its blandness of scale and layout compared to spreads and stories from a couple of decades ago.
Photoessays in supplements were the primary contexts for McCullin’s work, samples of which are generally displayed at his various retrospectives. In 1980 however, his reportage work stepped outside of these spaces, and was exhibited at the V&A in London [iii]. Since then McCullin has been honoured with a succession of publications and exhibitions, most extensively Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum (2010); an institution that has a long history of supporting artists through collaborations, commissions and acquisitions and was perhaps the most least ethically challenging placing of his work to date. Last year McCullin turned eighty-years-old and as part of the celebrations an exhibition of some of his best know images were re-printed and displayed at Hamilton’s Gallery in Mayfair (under the title Eighty), and also a more extensive show at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, Somerset (Conflict – People – Landscape), near where he has lived for many years.
McCullin has been documented many times candidly disclosing his compulsion to work in lethal environments between the 1960s and ‘80s, as well as discussing the trauma that his experiences have left him with – the torment of his ‘ghosts’[iv]. He has also discussed his landscape photography from Britain in relation to his experiences further afield, and the role this has had in rebuilding his emotional life [v]. The Hauser & Wirth exhibition concludes with six such images, made in Somerset and representative of the transparent emotional intensity of his work. The skies of this usually temperate county are ferocious and black; sunlight scorches the land with equal menace; and bleak metaphors abound, such as the stumps of harshly pruned willow trees that thrive on the marshy Somerset Levels – like feeble white knuckled fists determined to punch through McCullin’s Stygian prints.
While his exhibition is steeped in historical narratives, the exhibition that McCullin’s is paired with at Hauser & Wirth looks towards an imagined ‘future’. In the accompanying galleries, Simon Morrissey has curated Qwaypurlake, a collection of works that proposes a dystopian future where the county of Somerset is (once more) dominated by water and human beings live a marginalised existence. Combining practitioners with connections to the area working in multiple disciplines, Morrrissey juxtaposes figurative and familiar forms in photographs and sculpture with more abstract pieces and artefacts – playfully inviting open interpretations of a disquieting narrative. The representation of people is restricted to Ben Rivers’s three-quarter length monochrome portraits of sack-hooded figures, disturbingly fixed on the viewer through rough eyeholes. More forensic pieces complement Morrissey’s narrative; such as Marie Toseland’s (actual) wisdom teeth, and Aaron Schuman’s photographs of smouldering ashes that perhaps hint most explicitly towards some kind of imagined Armageddon event. The perpetrators of this fictional catastrophe are also described in Elizabeth Fink’s bronzes from the 1950s and ‘60s. In this context Fink’s abstracted ‘heads’ read as the fossilized remains of our extra-terrestrial successors and her ‘birds’, with their elongated legs; a life form well adapted to traversing a wetland environment.
The spirit of fantasy that Qwaypurlake embraces is a pertinent extension of the mythology and narratives of the locality. The Somerset Levels in particular, measuring only a few metres above sea level, were indeed once under water. Neolithic settlers constructed series of wooden walkways and buildings, exploiting the natural biodiversity of the wetlands. This heritage is perhaps referenced in Sebastian Jefford’s Wattle and Daub – a giant piece of netting that hangs in one corner of the gallery, although all it has managed to catch are unappetizing clumps of clay. David Wojtowycz’s looped video The Lake, which is projected at one end of the installation and depicts a subtly strange view looking down a pier or jetty with oddly turbulent water to one side and still water to the other, makes a further connection to the region’s archaeological legacy.
Glastonbury, which overlooks the Levels and is arguably the most historic and culturally significant part of the county, is associated with Joseph of Arimathea who is said to have brought Christianity to Britain and whose staff supposedly sprouted into the Glastonbury Thorn where the town’s abbey was later erected. In the twelfth century the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to discover the remains of King Arthur, and the area became associated with the mythical ‘Isle of Avalon’ where Excalibur was purported to have been forged. In 2014 of course, the Somerset Levels were severely flooded, causing extensive damage and disruption – an event that will no doubt endure in the collective memory of the county’s people.
As well as the frivolity of Morrissey’s concept, Qwaypurlake has a dark and macabre side, notably the works in the gallery that adjoins McCullin’s photographs. These include Heather & Ivan Morison’s wax candles in the shape of bones, and Daphne Wright’s life-sized cast marble Rabbit and her partially dissected Stallion – laid out on its back on the gallery floor as if it had been carefully examined by the inquisitive conquerors from outer space.
Wright’s marble Rabbit, however, additionally has a much more grounded presence: hanging neatly on the gallery wall by its feet it acts as a pastoral motif – the morning’s toil of a farmer or poacher, or part of a rustic themed still life by the likes of Chardin. Devoid of photographs in this gallery (such as contributions elsewhere by James Ravillious, famous for his images of rural life in Devon, and Jem Southam’s dew ponds) the installation builds upon a preoccupation with topography and place to more of an exploration of what the relationship with our natural resources and neighbouring species (and how that existence could be characterised) might be like for inhabitants for this parallel universe or potential future.
The scheduling – and thus pairing – of McCullin’s work, explicitly preoccupied with the destructive realities of human beings, with Morrissey’s escapist vision was a provocative decision. McCullin’s photographs certainly support the malevolent and dystopian presence that Morrissey constructs, and McCullin’s landscapes provide a pertinent and powerful bridge between the two exhibitions. The work in McCullin’s gallery, however, is experienced as prologue to or an extension of the Qwaypurlake project, and marks yet another contextualization of McCullin’s photography by another kind of institution.
Don McCullin. Conflict – People – Landscape and Qwaypurlake were at Hauser & Wirth Somerset 15.11.15 – 31.01.16. Documentation can be found here.
This essay was commissioned by Photomonitor and can be viewed here.
[i] The Sunday Times Magazine 24.3.1968. (Also reproduced in Robert Lebeck, Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism. Gottingen: Steidl, 2001)
[ii] The Times Magazine, 29.12.2012
[iii] In his memoirs, McCullin expressed his concern of having imagery of war, horror and suffering on display in an in a space to be admired. Don McCullin. Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990, p.226)
See also Mark Hayworth-Booth’s article ‘Personal notes on dismantling the McCullin exhibition at the V&A’ in Creative Camera (April/May 1981), in David Brittain. Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing(Manchester University Press, 2000)
[iv] The title of McCullin’s early retrospective monograph was titled, Sleeping with Ghosts: A Life’s Work in Photography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994). In the documentary film McCullin (Dir. Jacqui & David Morris, Artificial Eye, 2012), he also described the ghosts haunting him from his negative filing cabinets.
[v] McCullin interviewed by John Wilson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4: 11.9.2015