Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Open Skies

Don McCullin is not normally a name associated with landscape photography, being more well-known for his war photography and urban images. Yet his book Open Skies which I have been dipping into this week, is full of the most wonderful, impelling black and white landscapes. The photographs, shot on film and printed dark as dark can be, are mainly of the Somerset Levels where McCullin settled after many years photographing the worst atrocities and harrowing scenes in war zones all over the world. This is not the standard picturesque vision of the English landscape, with summer sunshine and fluffy clouds. They show a windswept, stark expanse of countryside in winter, under dark and louring skies, and must surely be an expression of an anguished soul trying to come to terms with what he has been through. In the preface, McCullin states
"After photographing wars and revolutions for two decades, the memories of those painful years nearly always try to spoil my days, even now, here in England....My solace lies in recording what remains of the beautiful landscape of Somerset and its metallic dark skies, which give this county an aged and sometimes remote feeling as if the past is struggling against the future. The stillness of silence and sometimes my loneliness provoke my imagination, but, like the surrounding land, I am fighting to release the past in me."
I often struggle with the idea of a landscape expressing the photographer's emotions but in this case, there is no doubt that they do.  McCullin is a modest man not given to discussing the 'meaning' of his pictures - in the introduction to the book, novelist John Fowles compares his reticence with the "many photographers these days who, not satisfied with simply printing their work, have to develop it in a totally unnecessary linguistic darkroom and puff it in fashionable art-gallery jargon.  That murky slough of turgid self-justification.... Don expects his images to be their own commentary, like all decent artists." This was written in 1989 - imagine what he would have to say these days with the plethora of mind-numbing 'artist statements' which 'challenge, explore and interrogate' ad infinitum! This is work which stands on its own without the need for words. Inspiration indeed.

All photographs Don McCullin from Open Skies.

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