I wasn’t far into the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain today before Brexit ennui and despair asserted themselves: in a world beset by state and personal violence it’s self-indulgence to flirt with nationalism and move away from cooperation. At the end of hundreds of pictures across 18 theatres of suffering there was evidence enough of darkness as the continuing condition for too much of humankind. A coda of still lifes and darkly romantic landscapes did little to lift my mood.
But for all its sombre tones McCullin’s retrospective was well attended by a mixed audience. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were there; this is not an exhibition to drop into on a whim with the hope it will lift to the spirits. Most probably a number were interested seriously in photography and the close attention given to the pictures by some proved the point. Maybe there were other factors at play: McCullin might just qualify as a National Treasure (albeit one less cuddly than some); the recent engaging documentary on TV can’t have done any harm; and here was an opportunity to revisit with the benefit of (safe) hindsight several troubled decades.
If the latter, this poses questions about the purpose of the exhibition. Is it about McCullin the photographer or McCullin the man who is angry with the evils and inequities in the world? Admission to the exhibition comes with an A3+ leaflet. The whole of one side is devoted to a timeline of conflict from 1939 to 2015, from World War II to IS and war in Syria. The other side includes two photographs, miscellaneous information and a small block of text about the photographer – only 5% of the whole leaflet. The exhibition is as much about conflict, poverty and loss as photography (and certainly the art of photography is relegated to the background). McCullin never wears his profession lightly.