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Don McCullin

Moving portraits of photographer Don McCullin

Just putting the name Don McCullin into a Google search and then hitting ‘Images’ gives you a peak into what appears, to me at least, to be a strange, mystical, disturbing, dark and yet, at times, humorous, rich and wondrous parallel world. His pictures speak to you in a way that many photographers can only dream of. They are deeply emotive and simply cannot be ignored; often mesmerizing, magical, thought-provoking and oddly beautiful. I love the darkness in his work. It is a mistake to use the term ‘war photographer’ when in Don’s company. Take another look at the Google images and you’ll see why. When you study a McCullin landscape, it’s clear that he has invested a huge amount of time finding and composing the scene and then waiting for just the right balance of light and sky. When I look at these pictures I get the sense that Don is so connected with the world around him, so in tune with the moment, that the world has had no choice but to collaborate with him, presenting a unique glimpse, pulling back a curtain revealing its wonder and allowing him to record it as only he can and does.


Don is one of those unusual men who is admired and respected by both sexes in equal measure. He is tough and straight-talking, yet sensitive, complicated and, at times, even appears vulnerable. A mutual female friend once affectionately likened him to a naughty schoolboy, which causes me to smile whenever I think of him.


Mark George has represented Don McCullin for nearly three decades. You’d think that at 76 Don would be putting his feet up and taking it easy; not about to embark on a 12-day shoot for a global ad campaign for ASUS and Intel. Fortunately, Mark also represents me. “The client wants a short film showing Don at work. It’ll be no more than two days.” Mark is careful to avoid the two words that fill me with dread and make me shudder and cringe; the filmmaker’s equivalent of uttering the name ‘Voldermort’. “So it’s a ‘making of’?” “Well, yes, I suppose so, but…” Mark is quick to explain that it’s also a great opportunity. “Have I got complete creative freedom to do what I like?” “Yes, of course!” My immediate thought is to film a set of moving portraits of Don at work; a chance in a lifetime to work with one of photography’s genuine legends. I’m scheduled to start filming him at work, shooting an art installation – a giant wall made up of newsprint – in 10 days’ time. But as I’m already in town, Mark and I decide to meet creative director Ian Shepherd and brand strategist Martin Palamarz from Dutch agency, Lateral, at the Charlotte Street Hotel. It’s the day before the first shoot and everyone is excited about working with Don. They are keen to have a record of him at work but, more importantly, want to feel comfortable that whoever is shooting ‘those two words that cannot be mentioned’ is up to the task. Just two days earlier I had received the final graded online edit of a perfume commercial I’d shot back in May – all beauty and available light – which I hastily uploaded to my iPad. It’s all they need. “Can you start tomorrow?” Ian asks. Outwardly I appear calm and relaxed; inwardly I’m ticking off a mental checklist and trying to force the step change of a planned relaxing weekend with my wife. I need to assemble both equipment and crew today – now! “Of course,” I smile. Shooting on anything other than HDDSLR would have posed a serious problem. However, given the incredibly compact and relatively simple nature of the Canons, even with the Zacuto rigs, tripods and 12 primes, it’s still a far cry from an ARRI ALEXA or a RED.


We leave the meeting and immediately Mark sets to work finding me assistants, while I hunt for Nurofen. Fortunately I have everything I need with me, and I’ve already agreed to spend the Thursday helping ease Don into shooting digitally. We had spoken a month earlier about how he would like to shoot the installation, and what his camera and lens preferences were. “Canon,” he said. So after a brief discussion with Frankie Jim, head of Canon Professional Services UK, Don had two Canon EOS-1DS MkIIIs, an EF 24mm f/1.4L USM lens, a 35mm f/1.4L, a 50mm f/1.2L, an 85mm f/1.2L, a 100mm f/2 USM and a 135mm f/2L. Day one starts in the studio of Don’s son; a large loft space in Hackney. It’s a far cry from the studios I’m used to; Park Royal, IRIS or Spring. However, there is an incredible charm, honesty and homeliness about this place. Dust particles dance in the wide shafts of diffused light pouring through dozens of skylights and falling on to the old wooden floor. The huge space is littered with bookcases, antiques, sofas – there’s even a bed – and a rich, eclectic mix of memorabilia. The Stars & Stripes lie draped over a blue velvet chair next to a huge gold star; a rocking horse stands ready to compete with a bright-red Vespa scooter – all under the gaze of a painting of Elvis. On the floor stands an old paint tin, left there to catch the water from a dripping ceiling. The scene reminds me of one from the movie Being John Malkovich. I wonder for a minute whether we have somehow walked through a doorway into Don’s head, but quickly dispel this thought. Given the extremes of human suffering this man has both witnessed and experienced firsthand, that would be a place where few would dare to tread and, I suspect, a far cry from the cozy, comforting surrounds in which we find ourselves today. This location, and all it holds, proves to be the perfect backdrop for Don at work, and subliminally speaks volumes about the man and his life. Don arrives by cab at 8.30am. It’s the first time we’ve met properly. We once had a brief conversation at Ronnie Scott’s a few years ago, back when I used to shoot the occasional event for Moët & Chandon; an ‘available low-light, voyeuristic, party flâneur’. Don wanted to know about shooting digital and was amazed that I was working in near darkness without flash. I was feeling a little out of my depth, as he was sitting with Bailey, and so made my excuses and sloped off to photograph Joss Stone.


The assistants are busy hauling the lights up three floors, so we sip coffee and Don thanks me for my help with the cameras and lenses. He is drawn to the 24mm, 35mm and 135mm, explaining that much of what he used to shoot on SLR was produced at these focal lengths. He has lost none of the rugged good looks that the Google search revealed of the man in his younger days. He is approachable, charming and humble but, most of all, he is a gentleman; old school, incredibly polite and genuinely interested in all around him, no matter what their role or background, and it is clear that to him all are equal. I broach the subject of filming him and he is surprisingly relaxed at the prospect, which is a huge relief. I start to feel a real sense of excitement and privilege at the prospect of both working with and getting to know this man who I have admired from afar for so long. While discussing the available light with Don’s trusted assistant, Roger Richards, we are joined by art director Ian Shepherd. I stand back and watch the conversation unfold. It’s immediately obvious that not only are we going to deliver on this campaign, but we’re going to have a great time in the process. For only the second time in his life Don will be shooting digitally and it’s the first time on location; and it’s fair to say that, understandably, he is a little apprehensive. However, he adapts with effortless ease. Seeing work materialise on screen, then being able to manipulate the image instantaneously, is something we now take for granted. For Don this is all new, and with a little help he quickly takes to the digital darkroom; directing the dodging, burning and vignetting with childlike glee and wonder. Yet I can see the hint of a private battle between the purism of film and the easy cheats of the computer. To Don’s great credit, this purism is maintained throughout; the computer doing very little more than could be achieved in his darkroom at home.


Eight hours and two peacocks later (the first session was of a live peacock, and according to Don, was his first animal shoot) and we are sitting on two of the many sofas littering the studio. He looks content and relieved that the day was a success, and is chatty.  As we talk, I ask if he minds if I continue filming. He agrees. He is lit by a soft, late, warm, summer afternoon, window light. At first I shoot wide, gradually moving through lenses until finally he is full frame in a 50mm prime. This is the first and last time I direct Don. As I ask if he will look straight into the camera and not speak, his smile slowly disappears to reveal a look of electric intensity; his eyes boring their way right through the camera and into my head. Mesmerized, I am like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. At this moment I know that I would never get a better moving portrait of Don, even if I kept shooting for the rest of my life. It’s a one-off moment of perfect light and timing.


As Mark chauffeurs us from the studio in Hackney to the south coast for the next shoot (a pair of seaside binoculars set against a McCullin landscape) Don’s conversation is an emotional roller coaster of stories about conflict, imprisonment, fear, horror, guilt and grief. Then inexplicably, with perfect comedy timing, he has us crying with laughter as he talks about fighting, money, ex-wives and past sexual conquests and adventures. Don is one of those unusual men who is admired and respected by both sexes in equal measure. He is tough and straight-talking, yet sensitive, complicated and, at times, even appears vulnerable. A mutual female friend once affectionately likened him to a naughty schoolboy, which causes me to smile whenever I think of him. As I get to know him I feel increasing pressure not to let him down. I really want to ensure that my films capture the spirit of the man and offer an occasional glimpse into his character and personality. Filming Don proves never to be dull. At times he is deep in thought then, like the sun appearing from behind a cloud, he gives a cheeky smile accompanied by a one-liner, followed by raucous laughter from us all. Then the twinkle in his eye is replaced by something else and a veil of darkness falls. Maybe, because I am aware of Don’s history of recording conflict, I’m looking too deeply. Yet, if he were a complete stranger, I could not help but wonder what it was that had whisked him away from the jovial, happy man of a moment ago.


His dedication to the project is total; never taking his eye off the available light and continually commenting on the landscape: “Look at that sky, beautiful.” Never wavering; not even for a moment. It doesn’t stop there. As I film I notice a quiet, calm, razor-sharp intensity as he observes all around him. It’s like a second sight; especially when he first meets people. He appears to instantaneously amass and assess the measure of them. I wonder if this skill has kept him alive; knowing when to stay and when to leave a situation and reading those around him like open books. Watching Don at work is like a master class in observation and offers a glimpse into a pre-digital time, when the great photographers would prepare and wait with tireless energy and professionalism to shoot a handful of frames; confident in the knowledge that they were in the right place at the right time and that their story would be told through the medium of photography.  From a peacock, a trumpet, an old microphone, a hi-hat cymbal and guitarist – all shot in the studio in Hackney – through to a private record collection in North London, a pair of seaside binoculars on a pier in Weymouth, a baby grand piano on a back street in Hackney and a 90-ft art installation in a tram shed in Shoreditch. Working with Don has been so enthralling and compelling; I continue to shoot long past my original budgeted two days. In fact, I film all 12. A single commissioned short film has grown into a two-month project, culminating in six films. This project, more than any other, has crystallised my passion for the moving image and confirmed why I want to make films. This has been far more than a shoot; it has been a life experience.