Some journalists were having lunch the other day with Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, and suddenly found themselves asking: What is art?
Specifically, do the photographs of British photojournalist Don McCullin qualify as art? Or are his dramatic images from war zones, famines, and decrepit neighbourhoods simply photojournalism?
There is a splendid exhibition of McCullin’s work at the National Gallery these days and Mayer certainly believes the photographs on display are art, although McCullin himself is most uncomfortable being called an artist. As Mayer says, these are not lucky shots by a photographer who happened to be in the right place at the right time during a career stretching back a half century. No, these are consistently high quality, powerful images created under extreme conditions that, together, deliberately create a body of work with a purpose: To draw attention to the victims of aggression, poverty, and discrimination.
Mayer is right. McCullin’s photographs of soldiers and their victims in Biafra, Congo, Cyprus, Vietnam, Lebanon, Berlin, and other world hot spots of the last 50 years are as much art as are the images created by war artists recording battles, not with a camera, but with paint and canvas.
An excellent essay in the exhibition catalogue by National Gallery curator Katherine Stauble compares McCullin’s work to the famous – or is that infamous? – drawings of death and torment by Francisco de Goya during the Napoleonic Wars in Spain and of the horrific drawings and paintings by German artist Otto Dix, a soldier himself, during the First World War.
In discussions about his work, Stauble writes in the catalogue, McCullin often evokes Goya, particularly in reference to his first war assignment, in Cyprus, where he came upon a massacre site and became aware of his “painter’s” sensibility.
“I started composing my pictures in a very serious and dignified way,” McCullin later reflected. “It was the first time I had pictured something of this immense significance and I felt as if I had a canvas in front of me and I was, stroke by stroke, applying the composition to a story that was telling itself. I was, I realized later, trying to photograph in a way that Goya painted or did his war sketches.”
An image from the civil war in Cyprus in 1964 is, indeed, one of the most dramatic images in the exhibition. A Turkish-Cypriot woman has just learned her husband was killed by Greek-Cypriot militia. Her look of anguish is unforgettable and perfectly sums up the horrors of all wars.
Even more horrific are the images from the famine in Biafra in 1969 showing children who have been reduced to stick figures. One particularly haunting picture shows a starving baby fruitlessly trying to suck milk from the flattened breasts of his emaciated mother.
The McCullin exhibition continues at the National Gallery until April 14.
Featured image on the Ottawa Magazine homepage: Don McCullin. US marine throwing grenade, Tet Offensive, Hué, South Vietnam, February 1968. Gelatin silver print. © Don McCullin / Contact Press Image.