McCullin, 1969. Tormented, homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London
Don McCullin is known for his photojournalist work which captures the underside of society and focuses on the unemployed, the downtrodden and the impoverished. McCullin is, though, most well-known for documenting conflict with his images of the Vietnam War and the conflict in Northern Ireland especially being held in high regard.
What McCullin is perhaps less well known for, however, is still-life photography.
McCullin, 1992. Still Life in my Garden Shed
Still Life in my Garden Shed (McCullin, 1992) is a superb example of the still life genre.
The image exhibits a wide range of tonal values, from deep black shadows through to highlights, although there is a bias with regard to the frequency with which these feature – the composition restricts shadows to a role of helping to represent form and texture and consequently the image has an overall appearance and therefore feeling of openness, lightness and airiness. Detail is captured not only in the variety of subjects but also in the immediate environment due to significant depth of field, the background is shown in as much detail as the subjects themselves.
Subjects are arranged to give each item equal status. The composition flows through the image as result of the connectedness of the various subjects.
There is a quality of abstractedness associated with this image and this is attributable to the monochrome presentation, which brings a disconnect, which removes the element of time, as much as it attributable to the genre itself.
The surroundings induce a feeling of sombreness which is offset by the vitality and sense of renewal offered by the organic subjects.
Hodgson (2012) suggests that images are not only of something, but are also about something.
McCullin’s image portrays a variety of subjects: mushrooms, berries and fruit together with a jug and an ornament.
The message that this image conveys is about timelessness, it is about stillness, it is about peace, and it is about solitude. Above all else, though, it is about escapism. This image is a firm invitation to the viewer to stop, pause and reflect.
This is certainly an aspect identified by Hamilton (2012) who, writing in The Independent, informs us that ‘for McCullin, still life and landscape were a deliberate sanctuary from the violence and pain of the war reportage for which he is best known’.
It is also something which McCullin himself recognises, in his own words:
‘On the other hand, working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So, there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace’ (McCullin in Horvat, 1987).
How do McCullin’s still life images inform my practice?
Whilst each subject in the image is captured exquisitely, the light in McCullin’s image is captured in a very matter of fact way, it is there for a purpose and I feel that that purpose is not to show light as an entity with a presence of its own. This contrasts with the work of Sudek whose images portray light as having a vitality, of having a presence.
Josef Sudek, 1956. Still Life after Caravaggio, Variation 1
Light is there to reveal form and texture. It is there to help convey the mood of the scene. It is not invited into the image to convey any emotion of its own.
So much of the appeal in photography, for me, comes back to light. It is an area I want to explore by working in genres in addition to food photography. I want to understand the different types of light, and the different emotions that light can introduce into an image.
Hamilton, Adrian (2012). ‘Calling the Shots: Still-life Photography’. Independent.co.uk, 05 March 2012 [online]. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/calling-the-shots-still-life-photography-7536216.html#gallery (accessed Wednesday 15 November 2017)
Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)
Horvat, Frank (1987). ‘Don McCullin’. Horvatland.com [online]. Available at: http://www.horvatland.com/WEB/en/THE80s/PP/ENTRE%20VUES/McCulin/entrevues.htm (accessed: Wednesday 15 November 2017)