How We Met: Don McCullin and Marilyn Bridges

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The Independent Culture
Don McCullin, CBE, is 59. He started work as a photojournalist for the Observer in 1964; he worked for the Sunday Times for 18 years, covering war zones in Vietnam, Biafra and the Lebanon. Married once, he has four children. He lives in Somerset and is working on a book of his work.

Marilyn Bridges, 46, studied drawing in New York and received an MFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is a licensed pilot and in 1982 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her aerial photography. She has been married twice and lives in New York.

DON McCULLIN: I was having a retrospective of my work at the Arles Photography Festival two years ago and that was where I met Marilyn. I was reasonably happy at the time - living alone in Somerset after a difficult period that had culminated in the death of my ex-wife.

When the exhibition opened I remember people flooding in. Then I saw this tall, beautiful blonde lady come in. A little later my agent came over and said, 'There's a very beautiful blonde American woman over there, I've just heard her saying 'I've got to meet the man who took these photographs.' ' So that was very exciting. But I said chauvinistically, 'Well, if she's the one I think you mean, she's in luck.' When she introduced herself, she was leaving with a photographer called Larry Fink and a young girl. I presumed they were a family.

A couple of days later I met up with Larry, and by then I'd discovered that he and Marilyn were not involved. So I said, 'She's very nice, that Marilyn Bridges.' But he looked at me and said, 'Forget her, Don - you haven't got a chance]' and I felt like a cringing little creep.

But as it turned out, he'd got it wrong. We kept bumping into each other at the festival and got on better and better. At one function she jumped a queue to get us two glasses of champagne. I was amazed and told her, 'You're just what I need]' She's very direct, very determined about what she believes in, but she always does it in a very polite way. She never behaves badly. I plucked up the courage to ask her out to dinner, but she turned up with her agent. It's not easy to handle two women at once when you're trying to flirt with one of them.

I didn't think for one minute that I was going to get anywhere. On the last night I watched her walk into her hotel and thought, 'Well, that's the last time you'll ever see her.'

Nevertheless when I got back to England I wrote to her, suggesting we keep in touch. And when she didn't reply I felt like a fool. I was due to visit New York with a friend, but I didn't bother to ring her up because I felt I'd really lost face. But when I got back to Somerset there was a huge letter waiting, and I found out that the reason she hadn't replied was because I'd put the wrong zip code on my letter and she had only just received it.

So we agreed to meet up in Seville and I arrived armed with a bottle of champagne to calm my nerves. Then I began to find out about Marilyn. I understood very quickly that, while she was undoubtedly born with a beautiful face, she would never have used it to get on in life; she's completely dedicated to her work. For the first time in my life I've found myself involved with somebody who is as involved in and obsessed by photography as I am.

As an aerial photographer she's unique. She's up there, risking her life. And she's not going to be grounded - she loves her life and anybody who tries to take that away from her is not going to succeed, least of all me.

In Seville I was happy and sad all at once because I thought, 'I'm tasting something wonderful but it's bound to be taken away from me.' She seemed too strong, too independent, and too much in demand. So I tried to find a bond that would keep us together. I brought her to my house in Somerset and showed her the countryside she'd seen and admired in my photographs. And we discovered a mutual love of beautiful things and places.

She's very good for me. She's extremely athletic and runs six miles every day while I follow her on a bike - I'm convinced she's keeping me young. I think she'd be happy to carry on exactly as we are - seeing each other for long periods and then separating for several months. But the separations are a killer for me. We're at very different stages of our lives. I'm through with rushing around, but Marilyn is still looking for new challenges. But I would never ask her to give up her work; it would break her spirit and the relationship. I don't know how we're going to resolve the situation but I'd rather keep trying than give her up.

MARILYN BRIDGES: I was really at the perfect place in my life to start a relationship when I met Don. I had been married before but there had been enough time for me to come into myself again.

I'd been invited by the French Ministry for Culture to photograph northern France from the air. They were very concerned about the effect of the Channel Tunnel on the landscape. And at the end of the project I decided to visit the Arles Photography Festival where I'd had an exhibition the year before.

I knew of Don McCullin's work and wanted to know more. When I saw his pictures, I couldn't believe someone had taken such extraordinary war images and then translated his style into brooding landscapes and still-lifes. While I was looking around the show, I mentioned to my friend Colin Ford that I'd like to meet the photographer.

I thought he was very handsome and very shy. His gentleness attracted me right away. I found out later on that he can be very aggressive when he feels strongly about something. One thing that stuck in my mind was the rather strange shirt he was wearing. It was a decorative paisley one, and I remember thinking that it seemed an unlikely choice. Later on I found out I was right - he dresses very conservatively, but he'd been forced to wear the shirt because it was a present from the gallery owners.

Later he asked a mutual friend if he thought I'd like to have dinner with him. It was very innocent, very proper. Because I've been so used to men coming on strong, Don did just the right thing to attract me. He would walk me back to my hotel every evening and kiss me on the cheek. Then, on the last night, he asked for my address and I thought, 'Oh good, I'll see him again.'

He wrote me a beautiful letter from England. But Don is dyslexic, he mixed up the numbers on the address and I didn't receive the package for a whole month. I felt awful because I could see what the postmark said and could guess how he must be feeling. It was a wonderful letter and it made a huge impression on me. He told me, among other things, that no matter how many miles there were between us it didn't make any difference to the way he felt about me. But, you see, we almost missed each other - for good.

We arranged for him to join me in Seville where I was doing an aerial project. But we were still very coy and booked separate rooms in the hotel to avoid putting a strain on things. By the end of the holiday we'd fallen in love. There was something about Don's outlook on life - which is so much like my own - that drew me to him. It's a very spiritual attraction.

Don invited me to stay at his house in Somerset, and it was then that I began to see how important it was for him to bring beauty into his life after the destruction and pain of so many years as a war photographer. His home was immaculately furnished with wonderful bronzes, rugs and other artefacts from his travels - and it reminded me of my own home. We did all the romantic things like building fires and going for long walks. When the time came to return to New York it was a real wrench.

The fact that we're both photographers has its good and bad points. We're both well established in our own fields so we're not competing, and we have so much to discuss. But the downside is that our work takes us in different directions.

We've talked about getting married but we need to sort out the logistics first. It's funny because I see the positive side of having two great homes - in New York and in Somerset, but Don only sees the disadvantages and would rather we were settled in one place.

I've always lived my life according to what seems right at the time and this relationship has been like a dream. Don is a wonderfully romantic man. It has been and continues to be an extraordinary courtship. It gets better all the time.-

(Photograph omitted)