Don McCullin / Diane Arbus

Don McCullin – Tate Britain
Diane Arbus; In the beginning – Hayward Gallery

As is often the case, I’d noted that these exhibitions were on for quite a while so didn’t particularly worry about going to see them straight away. Then I forgot about them until it was nearly too late, so I ended up going to both on the same day. Of course it is not fair to compare them but since I did go to both so close together I thought I’d write about my reactions and see if there are any relevant comparisons.

The exhibition of Don McCullin’s work is a true retrospective and is a comprehensive look at his work throughout his career. What came across most to me is his empathy with his subjects. He says he always tries to remain neutral in his approach but seeing his work en masse like this – both war and disaster reportage and his images of homeless people – shows his strong empathy for the victim, the underdog. This is not necessarily just civilians in war zones; he is keen to show how the experience can affect the protagonists as well. This is most obviously shown in his famous image of a shell shocked US marine in Vietnam but there are others as well. His photograph of US troops receiving confession in Vietnam also shows how the war there was not just about a gung-ho military exercise.
The exhibition also includes photographs from the north of England, and landscapes from Somerset where he lives. In most, if not all, of these the tone is always dark and underexposed. This is deliberate and a quote from McCullin makes clear he thinks the darkness is from within him – this is the way he sees the world. One early industrial photograph, “Early shift, West Hartlepool Steelworks, County Durham 1963” is echoed in a later landscape photograph “Creech hill, close to the site of a Roman hill fort or temple 2017”. In the later image a dark cloud seems to emanate from a bare tree on the horizon, seeming to mimic the smoke from the factory chimney in the other. Both show a great affinity for the sublime, and in contrast there is almost no sign at all in any of his work of the picturesque.

The Diane Arbus exhibition is not a complete retrospective but concentrates on the first half of her career. Unlike the Don McCullin exhibition , this is deliberately laid out so that there is no particular ‘path’ through the works. No arrangement by chronology or theme, and the physical layout encourages random wanderings. This seems appropriate as it encourages the idea that she did not necessarily have any complete plan but was always experimenting with ideas. The fascination with freaks and outsiders that she became well known for is already well established. In fact these subjects – female impersonators, circus freaks, nudists – are given a dignity that is often missing from more ‘normal’ subjects. Unlike Don McCullin there is a definite feel that she was prepared to get the shot regardless of any explicit or implicit consent from the subject. Although McCullin insists he is always neutral, Arbus seems less concerned with her subjects as people than as just props for a good image.
(Also her experimentation with what could make a good image includes several images captured from TV screens. In this she was a long way ahead of people like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine).

Both exhibitions feature images of death but again there is a difference in the degree of empathy. To compare two images, Arbus has an image of a corpse in a mortuary where the chest cavity has been completely opened up, and McCullin has an image of a man shot through the head in Congo. Of course there is a big difference in their background – McCullin is a war reporter an Arbus is not – but McCullin’s photograph still seems to show more engagement with the dead person than Arbus’ does. There is a greater detachment evident in Arbus’ work on show here than in McCullin’s. As I said above, it is not fair at all to compare them, so all this difference in detachment means is that perhaps Diane Arbus was not really suited to being a news reporter. Maybe her work says more about her than the subjects themselves?

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