Don McCullin on finding salvation in the countryside

Don McCullin on finding salvation in the countryside

A deeply personal survey of landscape photographs at Hauser & Wirth reveals the photographer’s long relationship with his home in Somerset and the fragility of our natural environment

‘I feel like [the gallery] only gave me this show because they thought I was about to die,’ quips Sir Don McCullin ahead of the opening of his new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. After six decades of covering conflict, the 84-year-old British photographer words still pierce with the same steely earnestness as his images. This deeply personal survey spans his extensive travels across the globe, from painterly compositions of Somerset’s ‘metallic dark skies’ to the fragile Arctic landscape, colossal ruins in North Africa, sacred Indian and Indonesian locations, and meditative still lifes. Here, in his own words, McCullin candidly opens up about his enduring connection to the British countryside, losing control and the great challenge of landscape photography…

Somerset calling

I owe something to Somerset because I came here when I was a child, about 80 years ago, as an evacuee during the [Second World War]. I spent a couple of years in Somerset, then went back to London and then I went somewhere else because my mother wanted to get rid of me. But I never forgot Somerset and about 36 years ago I returned. I had just been fired from The Sunday Times and I was in a very strange place, I was very depressed. I was sacked by a man called Andrew Neil [then-editor of The Sunday Times], who I don’t like, you might say.

The River Alham that runs through my village in Somerset, mid-1990s, by Don McCullin
The River Alham that runs through my village in Somerset, mid-1990s, by Don McCullin, gelatin silver print. © Don McCullin. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Anyway, I found a house down here in Somerset. Because I lived on the hill outside of town, all you could see were the skies, but they were coming from the west where all our weather fronts are from. I [once] saw a collection of paintings by Constable in a private collection in Canada – he did a series of skies on small canvases. So the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to look at the sky and think [to myself] if there is a possibility that I can make a landscape picture today. And of course, some days there are, and some days there are not.

A shot in the dark

I don’t work in the summer, I only take pictures in the winter because the sky is much more expressive. I embarked on this landscape career in between doing the other weird things I do in photography. And I do this voluntarily – no one asks me to do it, no one pays me to do it. It’s me that makes myself do it. I started doing landscapes around 1990, and after all these years I’ve managed to put this collection together. I’ve printed every one of these pictures, so there’s a lot of me in these pictures, a lot of my integrity and a lot of my emotional thoughts. It’s a short history of my life for the last 80 years and it has been a great challenge for me.

I’ve got 60,000 negatives, so in the past I’ve always jumped on the ones I thought were the best, and I pushed a whole swathe of them aside. Now I look at them and think that time helps the negative. You can look at a picture that was take in the 1960s and it appears as if it was taken 100 years ago. Time actually enriches these pictures and makes them look very historical.

Sight of the times

I’m just out of control, but it’s not negative out of control, it’s very positive. I have to be very careful I don’t become very offensive about it because people say, ‘What is he trying to do here? Is he trying to frighten us? Is he trying to please us?’ It’s both, really. I used to travel the world working for The Sunday Times, mostly to wars and revolutions. After I came home, I used to abandon my young family – which was very wrong of me – because I wanted to keep going. I was suddenly like a mad dog out of control.

‘The stillness of silence and sometimes my loneliness provoke my imagination, but, like the surrounding land, I am fighting to release the past in me’

I thought I have to do some English landscapes based on [photojournalist] Bill Brandt, a German emigré who came to England in 1933. He was quite wealthy so he would photograph things like maids in posh houses wearing pinnies. But then he would go to the North of England and photograph miners being scrubbed in aluminium bathtubs – I was a fan of his and started following in his footsteps. Thank God I did, because Northern England was a honeypot, it was full of riches. Still, I was indulging myself – in my conscious – on the back of other people’s misfortunes because I was photographing the underprivileged. Mind you, I came from an underprivileged background myself so I thought I knew and understood what I was doing.

The politics of nature

My work is, in a way, environmental, and it’s the same with the landscape [in Somerset]. Our biggest threat around here is that it’s desirable. So-called developers – who aren’t actually developers but are backward-thinking – want to build here and in the end they’ll ruin what we’ve all came to love. But people must have houses. There’s no doubt that my photography has got a political twinge to it, but I’m not clever enough to frame it with voice and mind – I do it better through pictures. But everything we love is under threat, really, the whole planet.

The landscapes are [political] because of the green belt. There are more than 60 million people living in this country now – where can they go? We can’t imprison them all in cities. Eventually we’re going to have to break out and take some of that land. The green belt was meant as a conservation area for our future generations but we are going to have to bite into it. But I’ll be dead by then, so it won’t bother me. Every time I leave London, I keep seeing another deadly threat: they’re called industrial parks, and they’ve got nothing to do with parkland. It’s a poncey name that’s trying to avoid the fact that it’s another blot on the landscape. §

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