Don McCullin has been one of my favourite photographers for as long as I can remember. I collected all his books and when starting, tried to make my landscapes like his. He has been an influence and inspiration for me and many other photographers for the last 50 years or so. When I see one of his exhibitions advertised, I jump at the chance to go and see it and marvel in the works of a legend.
A few weeks ago it was my birthday, so we decided for a bit of a treat, to make our way to the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Bruton where currently a major exhibition of his work is showing. Having seen his exhibitions before, the expectations were high. A few years ago H&W had a show of his work, so I was keen to see where things had gone since then.
Entering the gallery, instinct guides you to the left where we were greeted by the artists newer work, and this is where it started. The first work “The Extreme Arctic – Norway”, a shot of breaking pack ice on a fjord was in itself a nice if not striking image. What I noticed more than the ice, or the stunning mountains was that the horizon wasn’t level, not by a little, but a perceivable couple of centimetres higher at one end than the other. I may never have been to the arctic, but one thing I do know is that the sea is level and even if the camera wasn’t then surely it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to straighten the image in the enlarger, something I was taught during my GCSEs. I thought this might be an anomaly of this print, but the corresponding image in the catalogue was printed the same.
Moving on, past another arctic print (which seemed to have been underexposed in the camera and dragged back massively in the darkroom causing the whites of the snow and ice to look partially solarised) we came to the final arctic prints. These were nicely printed, but for some reason, float mounted almost to fill the frame. Sometimes this works, but all I feel it achieved here was to make the print look wrinkly, an effect that was magnified by the shadows caused by the downlights. A simple mount or a larger frame-filling print would have made the presentation so much sharper. These images also had a small lab stamp on them, showing they weren’t printed by the artist contrary to that inferred in the publicity.
I will say, I did love the images in this room of the Syrian ruins and especially the ones of the elephants and mahouts in the Indian rivers. The light here was stunning and almost compensated for the previous images.
Now, as a rule, I don’t like still life images. I could never really see the point. In the painting world, they were a way to practice technique, but photographs of this type rarely do anything for me. In the corridor between the two main rooms were a collection of the artists still lifes taken in and around his Somerset home. These were stunning. The first one of a simple vase of flowers and objects was almost like a fine etching. The tone and detail were endless, and the composition almost perfect. If I wouldn’t have got in the way, I could have stood and looked into this image for hours. If only all still life could be like this, then I may be converted. Next to this was a simple image of some fallen apples on a wooden ledge. Again, this was lovely. It gave me the feeling that I could do this myself (although I probably couldn’t) and would love to stand and gaze into it for hours, just at simple apples.
We headed into the second and biggest room, which immediately felt familiar. Not that I’d been in the space before, (which I had), but that I instantly recognised every image there. This is not necessarily a bad thing as with a long-serving renowned artist, most of their less recent work will be familiar. I was here with my girlfriend, so it was interesting to hear her take on the images, their composition, printing and atmosphere of the prints. There were things I’ve never noticed and others I wouldn’t have considered. She particularly liked the industrial and coal mining social landscapes with men huddled around a fire and women pushing dirty prams past slag heaps. I have never really appreciated some of these before and the second set of eyes made me realise quite how stunning they really are and how they perfectly capture the time and place of the impoverished post-industrial north of England.
A point of discussion looking at some of the images that followed was that some of the images wouldn’t be considered art if a regular photographer took them, they were nice, but compositionally and emotionally not really up there. It reminded me of a time David Bailey was questioned on a book of photographs of his then wife. The interviewer questioned that they were not art, just a collection of “snaps” to which Bailey is said to have retorted that “A snap by Bailey is art!”
The final main wall of the exhibition consisted of a series of mainly Somerset landscapes. Some, but certainly not all of these were stunning. We stood looking into (more so than at) one simply of a lane next to a scraggy hedge over a hill. The detail and tonality of this print were beautiful. I could almost sense the weather and smells just as the photographer would have done. If I could’ve gone home with one image, then this would’ve been it. Sadly, I was £20,000 short on the day.
These bigger images were stunning, and it is such a shame that there wasn’t more than the four or five in the show printed in this way, huge print, black frame and importantly, no mount. I like many feel that mounts are such a dated way of displaying photographs. You don’t see an old master oil painting surrounded by a cheap piece of cardboard, so why do we do this to the best photographs??
These big images did highlight another (quite literally) glaring problem with the whole exhibition presentation. When you stood to look at an image, depending on your angle, sometimes all you could see was a reflection of yourself and the images and people opposite. Given the cost of the images for sale and the proportionally small extra cost, why on earth didn’t the gallery specify a nonreflective glass? Once this was noticed, I couldn’t unsee it, and it made some of the darker images almost impossible to appreciate.
On returning home, I got out my copy of “The Landscape” so we could remind ourselves of some of our favourite images and see them in context with their contemporaries and notes to go with them. Instantly, we both commented that the images in the book were so much nicer printed than the hung prints; they were slightly lighter with more tonality and more or the image visible. I’m not quite sure about the artist’s obsession with being as dark as possible. In some images it works and is needed, but others it spoils. Darker is not necessarily better.
I frustration with this exhibition and the last I saw at H&W was that there was no information about the images in the gallery, no numbers and no information. I had to return to reception to pick up a photocopied catalogue presented in poly-pockets which even then didn’t seem to have the images in a logical order in relation to how they were displayed. Some discreet information panels would’ve added so much to the whole experience for such a small cost. I could also find no information on how to buy a print if one was interested.
To conclude, this was a lovely exhibition and a nice introduction too, as I said, one of my all-time favourite photographers in his local gallery. It would have been so much better though with a bit of attention to detail in relation to printing, framing and interpretation.
For more information on this exhibition, you can visit the Hauser and Wirth official website here: https://www.hauserwirth.com/hauser-wirth-exhibitions/26511-don-mccullinthe-stillness-life