I was mooching around the ground floor at Tate Britain last week as I waited for a friend who was running slightly late. It was busy in there, accents from all over the UK and beyond chattering away and echoing around the galleries. A man, I’m guessing to be in his late 70s, joined me as I gazed at a small photograph of a clenched fist. The man told me that he thought that this photograph, and not just this photograph, but in fact the entire room showing the work of a contemporary art photographer, was a load of rubbish. He asked me what he was supposed to feel when looking at these particular images. I asked him what he felt? He answered that he felt nothing.
Like me, the man was there that day to view the Don McCullin exhibition. I knew that it was a popular show. £18 for a ticket is steep, concessions aren’t generous, but it is a huge exhibition bringing to light the magnitude of McCullin’s career. My friend showed her Tate membership card (thank you Lucy) and we proceeded to increase the density of an overcrowded gallery, finding ourselves reluctantly falling into line to join in with the stop-start-stop gallery shuffle.
I didn’t know that McCullin grew up in North London. Some of his earlier photographs were taken close by to where I currently live. I extracted myself from the shuffle to look at these for a little longer. The show comes with a content warning; the world’s atrocities as witnessed throughout the career of the photographer are brought to a gallery space: War, conflict, tragedy and poverty…..and not only overseas. Becoming quietly emotional in the middle of a gallery full of strangers isn’t weird under these circumstances. It didn’t come as a surprise to me that McCullin’s later work is focused on still life and landscapes.
The show could be described as overwhelming because there’s so much to look at, but it could be that this is intentional, making it impossible for anyone to look away? It could also be described as frustrating, purely due to the excess of people in there, making it difficult to get away!
At the entrance to the show, there is a McCullin quote:
It made me think of the conversation that I had had with the man earlier when we were looking at the clenched hand photograph. I wondered what he might have said about his feelings after experiencing McCullin’s work in the gallery? I didn’t see the man again, but I confess that after the exhibition, I really needed a stiff drink.