It’s those little flecks of light, reflected in the shiny metal of minecart tracks, criss-crossing the ground in front of a mine in County Durham, and depicted in sumptuous black and white, that drew me in. Standing astride these tracks is a well-dressed couple, looking back at their photographer with a mixture of wariness and pride.
Their (very famous) photographer, Don McCullin, is best known for his images of war - from Vietnam to Biafra. But he also spent time in the 60s and 70s documenting deprived areas in the industrial north and London. He is the subject of a thoroughly kitchen-sinking retrospective at Tate Britain this spring, as well as a more intimate show covering some of the same ground at Hamiltons. I found this photo, taken at Consett in 1974, at Tate.
It’s a far cry from the action shots of executions and carnage in far-flung places at war. The pair are stable, placed dead centre of the frame. Parallels abound, with the chimney to the left seemingly in dialogue with the lamppost to the right; the two are connected by a perfectly horizontal stream of mucky smoke.
To these 21st century eyes, where the UK recently celebrated a week without any usage of coal-fired power at all, the pall of pollution that hangs over McCullin’s mid-century cityscapes is an unexpected horror. In Durham, with the Margaret Thatcher-driven mine-closures a decade away, the entire atmosphere seems to pulse with dreadful, stinking smoke. The ground is black and sodden.
But the photographer’s humane eye picks out the girl’s smart white coat and shiny leather knee-highs, while the boy is locked in a perfect legs-apart power pose, radiating confidence. And then there’s those gem-like gleams off the rails. It’s fascinating in its contrasts!
Speaking to the Guardian ahead of the retrospective, McCullin said: “I get a lot of letters – and you must get the same – saying: ‘I want to be a war photographer’. I say to people that’s fine, but there are just as many wars going on in our cities. If you want to be a war photographer, go out and help yourself.
“I’m more proud of the social pictures I did of poverty in the north of England than I am any of my war pictures.” In all the photos I saw across the two galleries, this set certainly made the deepest impression on me.
Don McCullin is at Tate Britain (London). 5 February - 6 May 2019. Don McCullin: Proximity is at Hamiltons (London). 30 January - 11 May 2019