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Don McCullin, The FT Weekend

“I should have gone barmy, if I’d been a more sophisticated or fragile human being. I wasn’t. I came from Finsbury Park.”

From Don McCullin’s terrace, the Somerset countryside falls away in pastures, deep lanes and thick woods. Low trees shade the garden’s tumbling lawns. A swing hangs from a branch. Wisteria, ivy and roses climb across his lichened stone house.

The scene is the antithesis of the images that made McCullin famous as a photographer, first on The Observer (1959-1965) and then The Sunday Times (1966-1984): a new Turkish-Cypriot bride resting her head on her murdered husband’s chest; a hunched American GI, shell-shocked eyes staring; a starving albino Biafran boy clutching an empty food tin.

McCullin appears at the back door, dips his head (“Anyone over 5ft 6in has to duck”), and leads me into his big kitchen. “Would you like tea?” he asks. He is relaxed and smiling, recognisably the dashing photographer of the 1960s.

McCullin made his name with foreign assignments but his new book, In England, collects photographs of English life between 1958 and 2007: tramps and Ascot racegoers, fieldscapes and urban trauma, Shiite processions and Blackpool promenaders. Characteristically, they capture society’s extremes. Where, I ask, is the big swathe of middle England?

He smiles. “I’d need another lifetime to get those in the middle,” he says, “and would they want me?”

Born in 1935, McCullin’s own origins in North London’s Finsbury Park help explain his choice of subjects. His family were poor and he remembers the weekly trips to the pawn shop as “humiliating”. That hardship gave him resilience but “Finsbury Park, despite what it did for me, was a hellhole really”.

“My mother was tough,” he laughs. “You knew what day it was when she clouted you. My father was a very sweet man. My mother did my father’s hitting. Everyone was hitting me when I was a kid.” This included the teachers at the dyslexic McCullin’s local secondary modern.

His drawing skills won him a scholarship to Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts. But that ended when his asthmatic father died and, at 15, McCullin began working on the buffet cars of LMS Railways. The death of his father, a gentle presence in a hard world, devastated McCullin. “I was pretty pissed off. I went round being evil. The boys I grew up with were evil too. They’d go to the cinema and break all the seats. They’d pee on the floor rather than leave their seats.”

National Service in the RAF kept him out of trouble, though dyslexia kept the artistically-inclined McCullin from becoming an RAF photographer (he failed the trade exam). Undeterred, he bought his first camera, a new, £30 Rolleicord. Once back home and short of cash, he pawned it. Happily for photography, his tough mother, in an unexpected act of compassion, took pity and redeemed it with her own money.

McCullin began photographing Finsbury Park life, including friends in a gang, the Guvnors, posing on an old bomb site. A colleague at the Mayfair animation company where McCullin worked encouraged him to show them to The Observer and, on February 15 1959, they were printed. Overnight, a career was born.

The suddenness of that must have been extraordinary, I say.

“It was, because The Observer gave me 50 quid. The next Monday, people found out who I was and I was offered every job in England. That little thing inside me knew this was the only hope of having a life.”

In 1961, when the Berlin Wall started going up, McCullin, now married to childhood sweetheart Christine, bought a plane ticket and, without a commission, “started taking simple pictures of the Americans standing off with the Russians and East Germans. I felt, ‘This is it, this is what I’m meant to be doing’. The Observer used them big and I won some press award.” (Best Series, British Press Awards.)

“The next step was the civil war in Cyprus, then it was the Congo, then it was Vietnam, then I really got on the fast conveyor belt of troubleshooting.” That included Lebanon, Cambodia, India, Nigeria, Israel, Jordan (he has worked in 120 countries).

Why did he concentrate on war?

“Because I thought it would increase my chances of recognition. Which is a terrible thing to admit. In a way I was hoping to inherit the mantle of Robert Capa.”

Did he attain it?

He smiles. “Not necessarily, no. That would be rather foolish [to claim]. I said once ‘I’m going to be the best war photographer’. What a stupid thing to say. It’s like saying I’m going to be the best assassin.”

McCullin admits he became addicted to the dangers of war. Was he testing his luck?

“In a way. I would run across where snipers were killing people. I was looking for the edge. Not only the edge in photography but the edge in how far I could push me. I don’t know. It was a kind of weird vanity that I was trying to prove something. I had to try and overcome fear.”

Sometimes fear won. “I used to lose it every two years. I would have an experience so frightening, I would just fall apart for a day, or a few days.”

What he calls his “John Wayne” attitude changed in Biafra in 1969. “I didn’t understand the compassion bit until I got there. I was slightly blinkered until I walked into the Biafran War and [saw] the children dying on their legs.”

What McCullin saw in wars and famine gave him nightmares for many years. He experienced “the awful psychology of being a photographer who thought in the beginning it was going to be a really wonderful life”.

“I still carry a huge share of guilt about surviving,” he says. But he also says: “I should have gone barmy, if I’d been a more sophisticated or fragile human being. I wasn’t. I came from Finsbury Park. I’ve always had a bit of toughness to carry me through.”

In his 1990 autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour, McCullin called war “an abhorrence I could not bring myself to leave”. Why? “Once you got that adrenaline going, your simple family life in Hampstead Garden Suburb seemed rather dull. It is a shameful thing to say. One sacrificed that family life for the next dose of adrenaline.”

McCullin grew apart from Christine. In 1982, he left her and their children, Paul, Jessica and Alexander, for the models’ agent Laraine Ashton, with whom he had a son, Claude. Christine died of cancer seven years later, on the morning of Paul’s wedding.

As we talk at the broad kitchen table, McCullin, begins to look his 72 years. He speaks steadily in a classless, slightly gravelly voice but his intense blue eyes are watery.

“I’ve never got over it really. What I did was particularly wrong against the person who supported me so much. That morning when they were carrying her body down,” his voice trembles, “it was almost like the day in Cyprus [the photograph of the new Turkish-Cypriot bride] and all the wedding presents that had been smashed.”

Later in 1982, McCullin moved to Somerset, where classical music (“it makes you feel there is hope”) and landscape photography helped exorcise the ghost of war. “I erase it by doing landscapes and printing in my darkroom. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t killing those people. I wasn’t torturing those people”.

The echoes persist: why does he print his landscapes so dark? “It’s the darkness of war, the darkness of memory.”

After leaving The Sunday Times, and with his old and new families to support, he took his first advertising commissions. McCullin and Ashton split shortly after Christine’s death and his 1995 marriage to American photographer Marilyn Bridges was short-lived. He seems finally to have found peace with his third wife Catherine Fairweather (travel editor of Harpers & Queen) and their son Max who, aged four, is 40 years younger than half-brother Paul.

The father of five lifts In England from the kitchen table and opens it. Was he, particularly in the often raw, urban photographs from the 1970s, looking for the worst of the country? “Yeah. I’m not going to argue with that. I always went to Aldgate [in East London, home then to many down and outs]. It was like, in a way, hunting.” Hunting for? “Unacceptable images. People in the fourth richest country in the world looking for discarded food in Spitalfields Market.”

He leafs through, finds a picture of Jean, who he found “under the arches at Liverpool Street Station”. He helped find her a hostel. McCullin says, forcefully, he has done bad things. But he has also done “compassionate bits”, helping the war wounded and famine victims.

He picks out a funny shot of a Bradford matriarch, stern as granite, holding a spade and says: “That is one of my favourite pictures.”

He believes England has improved but is angered by freedoms being “snipped at” and people being left behind as affluence grows. He guiltily admits to not having voted for 10 years. (It was for the Liberal Democrats.) As for the “evil” old Finsbury Park boys, “they have a reunion, every year, in the Conservative Club. One of them said to me, because opposite the club is the [Finsbury Park] mosque, ‘Do you know what, Donald, we wouldn’t have tolerated that mosque. We’d have torched it in our day.’” McCullin goes to the reunions out of loyalty. “I don’t go to ridicule, I go to…” He is embarrassed. “They think I’m the made-good boy.”

Isn’t he? He won’t admit it, despite decades of accolades. These include his 1965 World Press Photographer Award, the rare honour for a living photographer of a Victoria and Albert Museum retrospective (in 1980) and, in 1993, the prestigious Dr Erich Salomon Award for lifetime achievement in photojournalism. The night before we meet, he received the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal at the society’s annual awards. Still, he says, awards “almost make me feel uncomfortable”.

The exception was his 1993 CBE. “I kind of slightly levitated in my office. I felt very emotional because I felt my dad would have been really pleased. Whatever I did in life, one of the main reasons was I wanted to bring respectability to my father’s name. It’s not a twisted thing to tell you but I wanted to make my name, my father’s name, mean something.”

Although McCullin is working on his seventeenth book – on Roman ruins in North Africa and the Middle East – he says, without false modesty: “I still approach my life as a photographer as a student because I know you learn every time you pick up a camera.” He never picks up a digital one (“I don’t want to look at a screen, I want to look at the world”) and while he admires Sebastião Salgado, “my heroes go back, they are not contemporary. I like the ancient works of Roger Fenton, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen.”

His recent photojournalism includes projects on Darfur and Aids in Africa. It can still be hard controlling his emotions. “There are children’s homes in Cape Town full of dying children with their faces covered in tumours. So there is the old alarm clock ringing and you think ‘What am I doing these things for?’”

“I do it because I can make people look at my work. Instead of rejecting it, I can bring them in. It’s a matter of dignity and timing and respect. So [the subject’s] dignity comes out loud and clear and it allows you [the viewer] to assert your compassion. I’m nothing really. Just a photographer. A pigeon that carries the message. Do you want another cup of tea?”

2 November 2007

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