The Haunted Darkroom: Don McCullin and the Nightmare of History

Don McCullin is arguably the preeminent war photographer of the last 60 years. Before retiring from the field, disillusioned and exhausted, he brought back images from the late 20th century’s worst conflicts as powerful as any in the history of art.

Using talking-head interviews and archive footage, this excellent, if desperately sad, documentary looks at his career, starting with Berlin in 1961 through to his coverage of Beirut in the ’80s. Understated yet dramatic, it offers a thorough examination of his life, as well as a sweeping survey of the cruelty through which recent world history has come to be defined.

Perhaps more than any other art form, photography gets closest to blurring the line between the real and the artificial. This stands to reason, given how well the camera enables anyone, no matter how skilled, to take pictures of whatever they like. (Conversely, has anything contributed more to the ‘aestheticisation’ of everyday life than photography? A million Flickr accounts would suggest not.)

With that in mind, the technology clearly poses profound questions for serious photographers hoping to get more than just a few holiday snaps — not least of which being ethical issues around what should and should not be turned into ‘art’. It’s these concerns that has led to criticism of, say, Diane Arbus’ often faintly inhuman portrayal of a certain kind of frailty. We also see every day how people can be manipulated by the photographic image, whether in fashion magazines, adverts or political propaganda.

What distinguishes McCullin is the way it puts these difficult issues front and centre, with directors David and Jacqui Morris understanding that its subject’s ambivalence to his work is as integral to the story as the things he’s witnessed. From the very beginning of his career, McCullin had a love/hate relationship with the job of photographic war correspondent, and as early as Cyprus in 1964 he’s already querying the legitimacy of his task. Is he any better than a voyeur? Worse, is he a mercenary?

Early in the movie, he speaks of the first time he witnessed an execution. He asks himself: “Did I have the right to take a picture of that man’s murder?” — a question that also has implications for his audience. The knee-jerk answer from our point of view is, of course, a resounding yes. He was there to report the truth of a horrible situation in order to broadcast that truth and perhaps even affect change.

That isn’t how McCullin sees it though, mindful as he clearly is of the ways in which his work may have somehow legitimised the violence portrayed within it. As for his contribution to any kind of change — war still continues, as do the atrocities carried out in its name. The only transformation he does acknowledge is his turning into a “war junky” — something else which only adds to the dull bitterness with which he views his conflict years.

For anyone wanting to learn about the horrors of the post-WW2 world, McCullin would be a good place to begin. However, alongside the violence there also sits a more personal tragedy in the form of his relationship with his own work. As ambivalent as he is to his role as a journalist, he is downright hostile when it comes to his pictures being seen as what he calls “poetry”, the idea of which he regards as a dangerous and distracting conceit. This calls into question nothing less than his own self-image as an artist — a label that, in his mind, would make him little more than a tourist of misery. It also forces us to ask just how effective art can actually be when representing the deepest of human suffering.

Part of the sadness of the film is the detachment with which McCullin has come to view his former life. We see him now as a stoic, compassionate but nearly-empty figure, trapped in a nightmare of history from which his conscience won’t allow him to awake. It’s this empathy for the victims of cruelty, however, that ironically conveys on his work the very artistic legitimacy that he wants to disavow. The ‘poetry’ that he so fervently denies is obvious even as he tears down the barriers that exist between him and those he shoots.

Throughout the film, we often find McCullin unable to describe what he’s seen in words. Rather, he invokes the work of fine artists to describe real life situations. Massacres are compared to Goya. The homeless men and women he photographed in Whitechapel in the ’70s are like something out of Hogarth. One artist’s work that never gets mentioned though — and one that the most violent of his images really resemble — is Francis Bacon.

As with Bacon, McCullin is fundamentally concerned with the body, which is understandable given the seemingly limitless cruelty that can be heaped upon it. At their most disturbing, both artists show us how inhuman that body can be manipulated to look — one in the abstract; one in cold, brutal reality. This is most immediately obvious with McCullin in an image from the Congolese civil war — a shot of a corpse, whose gunshot wounds have atrophied so that they resemble some insane sculpture in flesh.

We hear echoes of Bacon too — and for that matter, Dante — in his descriptions of the very worst things that he’s witnessed. Punishment castrations, human skin melted into Tarmac, rooms teeming with mad, blind children… The word he uses most to describe what he’s seen is ‘insane’, and his recollections do indeed speak of a derangement of reality to the point of abjection.

It’s in his work with faces, however, that the parallel with Bacon is most apparent — several of which are among the most famous images of the 20th century. Early on in the film, we are shown his shot of a grieving woman in Cyprus, her face contorted with an unidentified yet clearly immeasurable loss. In a photo taken during the Tet Offensive meanwhile, we see a close-up of shell-shocked Marine who cannot — or rather will not — shut his eyes.

It’s with these images that the film answers its own question about the legitimacy of art to portray suffering. Like Bacon, McCullin demonstrates that it’s in the expression of total anguish that we reveal ourselves to be as vulnerable as we really are. At the same time, that they are beautifully shot simply means that they demand to be looked at all the more. These are, frankly perfect, quintessentially human documents — icons of empathy — that neither the artist nor audience needs to be ashamed of.

Midway through the movie, McCullin states his belief that “photography is truthful if it’s handled by a truthful person.” The love of this kind of truth, as we learn as the action moves into the ’80s, is by no means always shared by those that run newspapers. By 1981 his paper, The Sunday Times, has been acquired by Rupert Murdoch, who, inevitably, replaces veteran editor Harold Evans with his own man. Predictably, the editorial policy shifts and war zones suddenly aren’t quite as important as lifestyle features designed to appeal to advertisers.

Around the same time, the British army sets off to fight the Falklands War. Whether through clerical error or design on the part of the British government, McCullin is kept off of the boat. It’s the first time he’s ever been kept away from a conflict zone, and it marks the beginning of the end of any remaining enthusiasm he may have had for the task of war correspondent.

The film ends with him photographing his beloved British countryside, using the same Mamiya that’s served him for the last 30 years. He looks for all the world like a refugee — only unlike his subjects in that he’s not fleeing the impossible circumstances of the present — but memories of the past.

One of the most telling moments up until that point has been what he has to say about his darkroom, which he describes as “haunted” — a place of residual horrors compelling him to bear witness to what he’s seen every time the lights go down. His current life as a landscape photographer seems, as much as anything else, an attempt to escape these ghosts by heading back into the ‘real’ world. As we put down the newspaper, his photography offers a similar challenge to us. How do we live with what we’ve seen? It’s a question also asked by this wonderful piece of cinema as it takes its place as an example of exemplary anti-war art.

If there is a criticism of McCullin it’s that perhaps more time could have been spent looking at other aspects of his life and career. While his work with the victims of war and poverty is well known, he also has a travel and even fashion portfolio (he produced the blow-ups for Antonioni) which we are made aware of only via montage. His personal life, meanwhile — which has been fractious — is barely mentioned at all. While you could argue more detail would dilute the narrative, it would have given us a broader understanding of him as a man.

The 25 minutes of deleted scenes go some way to filling in some of the blanks, particularly around his early life in Finsbury Park. We see him interviewed outside the house where he lived, picking up on the section in the movie about his work with the north London hoodlums of his youth. We get to learn a bit more about his work in the UK too, in particular Bradford and Brick Lane, themselves centres of violence and racial tension. Perhaps most pleasing, we also understand a little more of his dark room, this time with him showing some of the tricks of the — resolutely old school — photographer’s trade.

RATING 8 / 10