‘The ethical dilemma involved in producing beauty from tragedy has been a concern for the field of photography almost from its inception’ (Bloomfield). This was part of the writing on the wall in the recent Tate Britain McCullin Exhibition, as you can probably see, I did not read it on the wall of the exhibition, gleaning it instead from a secondary source on the internet. I make a point of not reading the walls in galleries, when I go to an exhibition I go to see the primary source of an artist’s work rather than the secondary sources of the curators.
It is perfectly possible to replace the word photography with art in this quotation, a few examples would be Grunewald’s Issenheim Altar Piece, Velasquez’s Christ contemplated by the Christian Soul in the National Gallery and the myriad Egyptian works inspired by the tragedy of the death of a Pharaoh.
Tragedy, or the depiction of it to create something beautiful, looms large in the history of art. The curators’ attempts to conceptualise McCullin’s work using detailed accounts of the tragedies that gave rise to it, rather than focusing on the composition of the photographs and tonal genius of the post production process used in the creation of the work is, to me, akin to writing bible verses on the Gallery walls when exhibiting Renaissance religious works.
I do not believe that it the job of the gallery to educate its audience on the tragedies of the latter half of the twentieth century that fully inspired McCullin’s work, but merely to expose the work of the artist to inspire and allow for contemplation by the public of works of art.
Don McCullin’s journeys to the world’s war zones are a biographical detail that seems to have little effect on the beauty and skill of the works on show, the photographs taken in Finsbury Park and England are just as beautifully composed and technically executed as the war zone photographs. I think it is important to see the photographs as works of art firstly and documentation of war secondly, I recently went to the Army Museum to see an exhibition of Alfred Munning’s work and though I found the museum interesting in itself, I was far more interested in seeing Munning’s brushwork up close
I went to the McCullin exhibition to see art, not to be politicised by the Tate curators or Susie Linfield, whilst I have now read her views on the subject, for which I thank her, I am unable to say I agree with them. Her citation from the history of art is limited to Rembrandt and Freud neither of whom bring suffering to my mind and probably not the mind of the average viewer.
Having got that off my chest, I was full of admiration for the tonal organisation produced in the darkroom by McCullin from his original negatives for the exhibition. In these days of digital photography it is unusual to see a photographer “painting with light” to produce his work. I think the old fashioned method produces greater subtlety in the tones whilst giving a greater tonal range that McCullin uses well to emphasise and bring out his compositions.
I found there was a dreamy sometimes nightmarish quality to McCullin’s images that somehow reminded me of Francis Bacon’s work, which I suppose is hardly surprising as no doubt Bacon was most probably influenced by the photographs in his Sunday supplement.
Bloomfield R. (2019) I am tired of guilt At: https://weareoca.com/study-visit-review/i-am-tired-of-guilt/amp/ accessed 11/06/2019.
Merhez A., Baker S., and Mavlian S. (2019) Don McCullin: London. Tate Publishing.