Best known for moving pictures of Vietnam, McCullin says photography has been hijacked by digital cameras and art world
One of Britain’s most celebrated and respected photographers has lamented the digital domination of his field, calling it “a totally lying experience” that cannot be trusted.
Don McCullin, one of the world’s finest photographers of war and disaster, said the digital revolution meant viewers could no longer trust the truthfulness of images they see.
He said photography had been “hijacked” because “the digital cameras are extraordinary. I have a dark room and I still process film but digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.”
McCullin, who turned 80 last month, was speaking on Friday as he was named master of photography for the second edition of the art fair Photo London.
He has captured some of the most famous images associated with conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries, from the Vietnam war to current conflicts in the Middle East. The former Observer and Sunday Times photojournalist is best known for his moving, often harrowing images taken during the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.
He does use digital cameras – “because of the pressure, people want things ‘now’” – but said he was happier with film, recalling one of his best experiences this year, standing on Hadrian’s Wall in a blizzard. “If I’d have used a digital camera I would have made that look attractive, but I wanted you to get the feeling that it was cold and lonely,” he said.
McCullin particularly dislikes how digital cameras allow for manipulation of colours. “These extraordinary pictures in colour, it looks as if someone has tried to redesign a chocolate box,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t work, it’s hideous.”
His remarkable list of assignments includes conflicts in Biafra, the Belgian Congo, Lebanon, El Salvador, Afghanistan and the Falklands, as well as Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
He admitted thinking “never again”, but a month ago spent 10 days in Iraq taking photographs for Harpers Magazine. “I can’t resist it somehow. I like to get my information first-hand, I don’t like watching it manipulated on news bulletins.”
In a discussion with the artist and film-maker Isaac Julien, McCullin also talked about his discomfort at being called an artist. “I’ve always thought photography is not so much of an art form but a way of communicating and passing on information,” he said.
“Many people misunderstand me – I’m quite happy to be called a photographer. All of a sudden the art world has caught up with photography and they are trying to hijack us.
“I’ve spent most of my life embracing violence in wars and revolutions. Even a famine is a form of violence. Because I photograph people in peril, people in pain, people being executed in front of me, I find it very difficult to get my head around the art narrative of photography. I’ve managed to push it back and retain my place by just accepting that I’m a photographer.”
He was often overwhelmed by guilt, he said. Memories flood back to him when he goes to sleep. “You can see my struggle with the art world, the ‘art’ of photography. The Americans are the ones who started this artistic kind of thing, why couldn’t they just leave it alone?”
As well as his war photography, McCullin is known for a memorable series chronicling homelessness in east London in 1969. He said the assignment, prowling the streets around Aldgate and Spitalfields for six weeks, was one of the biggest pleasures in his career.
“I would walk the streets for eight hours in the winter cold but I could never have been more happy. Some days you would turn a corner and there would be the picture.”
Photo London is planning an exhibition of McCullin’s work during the four-day fair at Somerset House next May. In total, 80 galleries will participate in what is the photographic equivalent of the Frieze art fair.
Its co-founder, Michael Benson, said they had been taken aback by how successful the first fair was, tapping into an explosion of interest in looking at and buying photography.
One goal had been to rival Paris Photo, acknowledged as one of the world’s finest fairs. “Our aim was to make Photo London the best photography fair in the world – not the biggest, just the best – and there were those who told us we were mad, there was no interest or market in London.” How wrong they were, he said.
“Perhaps the dealers who came here from around the world knew better than we did that London was a sleeping giant, ready to spring riotously from its bed.”
The fair brings with it a blizzard of accompanying events, with the Barbican, V&A, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Modern all planning photography exhibitions at the same time as the fair. The big auction houses will hold photography sales during Photo London week, and the talks programme will feature McCullin, Martin Parr, Chloe Dewe Mathews and Mary McCartney.
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