Book reviews of Don McCullin’s images and autobiography

Shaped by War by Don McCullin

I was just browsing my local library for some books to help me with some background research for one of my assignments when I stopped off in the photography section as per usual. Seeing this, I just grabbed it and thought it was worth looking at at home.

I was only familiar with McCullin’s name from a documentary that was shown on the BBC (and which I have recorded and not yet got around to watching) and hadn’t previously seen any of his work. For anyone not familiar with the book, it’s a large hardback, perfect for presenting photographs in it and allows you plenty of scope to look at and absorb all of the detail.

I started off by skimming the book and reading some of the text, in just a few paragraphs I was enthralled with the story and wanting to know more, decided to order the more detailed book ‘ Unreasonable Behaviour’ which is an autobiographical book written by McCullin with Lewis Chester. (A further review on this to come once I’ve finished reading it)

Looking at this in conjunction with Unreasonable Behaviour is quite advantageous as they complement each other well by allowing me to review larger images that feature in the former or to see an image that was referenced. The text just adds to the horror seen in the images, and it isn’t an easy book to look through; however the photographs are eye catching and are to be looked at and studied. As with any war photography where the subjects of the images can often by horrifying and hard to look at, only by seeing what’s gone before can we look to change anything.

Unreasonable Behaviour

I ordered this after a quick look through Shaped by War, usually I don’t have that instinct where I need to order a book pretty much straight after reading a few lines but in this case, I just had to read more. Luckily the book came a couple of days later and I’ve been gripped from the start. Going from McCullin’s roots with a hard childhood with poverty and gangs in London through to him discovering photography, buying his first camera, and getting his big break with an image of ‘The Guv’nors. An image that is evocative of the Kray era but could equally be the cover of a band’s album. While the book contains a number of his photographs to supplement his narrative, the extended text compared to ‘Shaped by War’ is the highlight. While the subject matter is not easy to read at times, it flows well and is easy to read, even when discussing the political situations McCullin was in the middle of. I was gripped from the start and would recommend this to anyone, not just photographers as its more about the man and the situations that he was in, not the photography, although the camera both allowed him access to areas and put him in many dangerous and life threatening situations. To come through all of the conflict, death and destruction with near misses yourself and still be living and sane is miraculous, especially when compared to the colleagues in photography and journalism that lost their lives along the way. The book is moving and inspiring and I felt very much that my photography will never live up to anything McCullin has done as I don’t take risks, I haven’t pushed myself and I’ve stuck to safe subjects but I’m sure there are plenty of other similar views. In the presence of what it think is greatness, I can’t help feel anything but inferior.

I’ve finished the book now, it ended on a sober note, McCullin survived countless warzones, conflicts and life threatening situations including badly damaging his arm and ribs after a fall off a roof only to be let down by the newspaper he had undertaken all this for and then the illness and death of his first wife Christine. I had to admit being stunned, shocked, horrified and moved to tears through reading this. I hope I get chance to see his work exhibited and one day I’d love to shake his hand and let him know that his work is still having an impact now.

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