'I used to be a war-a-year man' Don McCullin

Think of Vietnam, and any image that occurs is likely to be his. Yet one of photojournalism's greatest exponents has swapped war for a hermit's life in Somerset

Phillip Knightley
Thursday 11 May 2000 00:00

On the way down to Somerset to see the famous photographer, Don McCullin, for a man-to-man chat about war, women, and the meaning of life, I recalled that the last time we had done this was in the back of a taxi on the road between Suez and Cairo. The Six Day War was about to start and our attempt to get to the likely scene of action had been thwarted by our treacherous taxi-driver. He handed us over to the Egyptian security police who sent us packing. On the long drive back we reminisced about our early days in journalism. McCullin said that his break had not been - as legend has it - The Observer photographs of a youth gang in his home suburb of Finsbury Park, north London, but of something much more in keeping with his subsequent career.

"It was 1961. I had 70 quid in the bank. I saw in the papers about this wall going up in Berlin that was going to divide the city - communism on one side, democracy on the other, and I thought, 'I want to photograph that'. By the time I got to Berlin I had £8 left. I went to the hotel where Patrick O'Donovan, The Observer's correspondent, was staying, but he was out. The receptionist took pity on me and let me sleep in a room in her flat. My whole stay there was like the plot of a John Le Carré spy thriller. But the pictures I got launched me on war photography."

They remain among the best of his work, brilliant examples of the power of monochrome photography in the right circumstances.

McCullin has, of course, come a long way since then. For nearly 40 years he was the world's greatest war photographer. Wherever man was killing his fellow man, McCullin was there, "looking at what others cannot bear to see" - Cyprus, the Congo, Biafra, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, the Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and, above all, Vietnam. Twenty-five years after the American defeat there, most people's memories of that dreadful war incorporate unconsciously at least one of McCullin's photographs.

His searing, disturbing pictures - of maimed civilians, dead and dying children, a mother's face contorted with grief, soldiers pushed to the limit of endurance - won him fame and acclaim. He was awarded a CBE and two honorary doctorates. He gave lectures and has 14 books to his name. Prints of his work are collector's items. When The Sunday Times - home of his best work - sacked him, he let it be known that he would consider a few select advertising commissions. Agencies fought over him.

True, there were dark periods. He admits now that he was hooked on danger, that quick sprint along the edge of death that has been fatal for many a war correspondent. "I used to be a war-a-year man," he said at the time. "I need two a year now. When it gets to three or four I'll start to be worried."

Naturally this affected his family life. I asked him once what his lasting memory would be of his career as a war photographer. He replied: "Looking out of the back window of the taxi taking me off to the airport to go to another war, and seeing my wife and kids crying because they were never certain whether they would ever see me again."

There were personal upheavals. He left his wife, his teenage sweetheart, Christine, for another woman. Then Christine died of a brain tumour on the very morning of their son's wedding. And he never came to terms with the changes Rupert Murdoch made to McCullin's beloved Sunday Times magazine. "The magazine gave me carte blanche to go anywhere I liked, photograph anything I wanted to. Then one day the new editor said he didn't want any more pictures of dying children and mud huts and from now on the magazine was going to be lifestyle and leisure."

But at 65, looking outrageously young despite his age and past lifestyle, living quietly on his own in a wonderful stone house on 25 acres in Castle Cary, with his own trout stream, tame foxes, views to shame most picture postcards and a renewed interest in his work, McCullin should be enjoying the early autumn of his life.

But it's not quite like that. Jonathan Cape has persuaded McCullin to work on a 40-year retrospective of his work, for publication next year. This will coincide with an exhibition of his photographs inParis. So McCullin has been spending his days in his darkroom, going through thousands of negatives, choosing the best and then printing them - seeing out of the wash and the fumes of the chemicals his own life slowly emerge in the faces of people he once photographed.

"You remember All Quiet on the Western Front? Men marching through the mist. It's like that. Men I've seen killed come up out of the mist and join me. Pictures of friends and colleagues. Nick Tomalin, David Blundy. I can't stop printing. And do you know what's the sad thing? The more of my old work I print, the more I think that what I did - apart from my landscapes - was futile. My pictures never changed a thing."

He tries to think of the positive things that have come out of his professional life. "Don't forget, I left school at 15," he says. "The Air Force gave me a taste of education. Then journalism gave me the chance of getting away from the racist and bigoted background of Finsbury Park, and of going off around the world on great journeys with great writers - Norman Lewis, Patrick O'Donovan, James Fox, Nicholas Tomalin."

When The Sunday Times took that away from him, he sat around wondering what to do next. "There was the occasional offer from a newspaper but on The Observer and The Sunday Times I'd worked with the last of the best. And I didn't want to risk my life for today's proprietors. I hadn't hesitated to do it for old Lord Thomson [then owner of The Sunday Times]. But this lot? Then, when my funds had nearly run out I found that I could earn £3,000 a day doing advertising. You need months at a war to earn that sort of money."

McCullin lives alone since his second wife, an American photographer, decided she could not stand the English weather and he said he felt the same about up-state New York. "We've got a civilised, amicable arrangement," he says. "She lives there. I live here." But he agrees that he gets lonely sometimes.

He keeps every room neat and tidy, as he does himself, and follows a fairly strict routine. "My Dad told me, 'When you start getting old, son, be careful not to become dilatory'. So I get up at about five o'clock and feel my way downstairs to make a cup of coffee. Don't laugh, but I try to do it without switching on the light, just feeling my way around. Am I becoming eccentric?"

He is in his darkroom by six, does his quota of printing, then walks four or five miles a day. He feeds the birds, goes fishing sometimes, mows the lawn, cooks his own dinner and is usually in bed by 9pm. His desk is littered with invitations to attend openings, parties, launches, conferences in London. He seldom goes. "My home here is the only place I can keep my sanity. Somerset is a spiritual place and I don't want to put it all at risk in London."

So when strangers manage to track him down and knock uninvited at his door they are likely to catch a glimpse of an aggressive streak that McCullin usually keeps under tight control. "There was this geezer with a camera sizing the place up. 'I'm a great admirer of yours,' he said. 'Can I take your photo?' I said. 'I'm working, but I'll give you a cup of coffee and then I'll show you the way out of my village.' There's one bloke who won't be coming back."

Re-living all his combat experience through his photographs has only reinforced the anti-war views which he holds with fierce integrity. His agent recently reported an approach for McCullin to take the photographs for a recruiting campaign for the United States Army. The fee would be huge - "six figures" is all he will say. McCullin turned it down without a second thought.

He rang me after I got back to London. "I forgot to tell you," he said. "Natural Nylon, a film production company, has bought my autobiography and is going to make a feature film. Jonny Lee Miller is going to play me." I thought of suggesting that it would be fun for him to play himself but then I remembered something he had said earlier in the day. "I've been lucky and I've had a great professional life," he said. Then he paused and added: "But somehow it fucked me up."

An exhibition of Don McCullin's work opens today at Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 (020-7499 9493)

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