A few weeks ago Danny Blight (he writes on photography and is into theoryin a big way) got hammered on Twitter for saying Don McCullin is boring.
So I did a Twitter quiz on what is more boring....
What is the most boring thing in photography? You can only have four things otherwise, good lord, it would have been a long list. This is like an itch I shouldn't scratch but...
The Old British Photography bit didn't win, and it is more than just Don McCullin. There's a whole bunch of stuff up there, but still it only got 8%.
Personally I really like Don McCullin's work.He's one of the greats. I've seen it in exhibitions here and there, I've read his biography and seen his films. I've shown them students and had students coming out going, that's amazing, but where the fuck is Biafra and what's with the hero stuff. Which is good because it means you can do some history (on average 10% of students have heard of Chairman Mao - for example!) and address the hero element.
So I thought when they did a big show at the Tate, it would be an opportunity for people to come out of there learning about the world, about the period these images were made, about the monumental historical shifts they recorded. And to go beyond that photographer-as-witness-hero rhetoric. I actually quite like that rhetoric, I have a soft spot for it, but it's a bit limited and superficial ultimately and you need to leave it behind quite quickly when you have the right stage.
Maybe Tate was the right stage but I'm getting the impression that it's not. Anastasia Taylor-Lind expressed her frustration not just with the hanging of the images (all the same size in frames), the constant rhetoric of the heroic photographer, but also the lost opportunity to do something epic with the pictures.
The curation focused a lot on the war photographer as tragic hero and myth creation. One text read “ I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures” It’s 2019- time to start taking about passing the mic, not giving others a voice.
Another section intro read “I’ve been loyal by risking my life for fifty years” another “I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England...”
It honestly feels like I travelled back in time 20 years to see this show the curation is so outdated and poorly framed.
Because they are historically huge pictures that are of this world, and it is up to somebody else to realise their importance, and their role in UK publishing in particular, and take them outside the more limited frameworks of a super-talented individual to make us not just bask in their compositional brilliance but also understand something about the pain, heartache, suffering of the world, and the names under which wars have been fought and continue to be fought. Because that is the key message I choose to take from Don McCullin's work. I ignore the elements that don't interest me (the hero, great man stuff) and focus on the ways in which the images have a life beyond McCullin and the more hagiographic perspectives - which are the least interesting thing about the photographs, and perhaps have little to do with the photographs. The pictures have a life of their own, they are part of a larger visual field and that is what I have not seen recognised in any McCullin exhibition I've been to. And perhaps it's not recognised in this one.
I actually love old British work so it's a shame to see this show is a bit same-old, same-old. with a lack of imagination and maybe a cheapness about it (and it does cost a lot to enter so you should be getting alot). I don't know, I haven't seen it so maybe everything written here is wrong. And maybe it doesn't matter that much. I know that many of the things my photography friends moan about are completely irrelevant to the real, more-fully-functioning world. The show's doing well, getting great press, who cares? But I felt the urge to write this before doing something else that I really don't want to do...
But even when you there are economics at play, if you have some imagination, then you can be brilliant. I just reviewed Chris Killip's four part newspaper of his old work from the 1970s and 1980s from the Northeast of England. It's printed on newspaper it's printed brilliantly with a real design element that highlights vital historical work that doesn't feel reheated, that feels fresh and in its mix of images, feels like it is shedding new light on what it is to live in the communities where he photographed.
So yes, that's good!