The second in a new series of posts called Books Before Gear (BBG), as I move increasingly towards viewing photographs via paper rather than pixels.
I’m no art critic, and my thoughts about each book are entirely subjective, but hopefully they’ll give you an idea of whether you might enjoy the book too.
At the end is a link where you can buy on Amazon or The Book Depository if you’d like to. There’s no affiliation on my part, I’ve just used and liked both of these sites for years.
Books Before Gear #2
In England – Don McCullin
I came across this book in my local library which seems to have one decent artistic photography book for every dozen books named some variation of “The Dummies Guide To Using Your Nikon DSLR”.
Not being at all familiar with Don McCullin, I didn’t know what to expect beyond the striking cover image.
The first thing to mention about the book is how satisfyingly large it is. Closed it’s approximately 30cm square, and weighs over 2kg. Open, it’s not a book you can read on a cramped train and implores you to dive in and enjoy the beautifully reproduced images.
For anyone whose main viewing source for photography is Instagram on their smartphone, I would strongly recommend picking up a book such as this and see how much more it allows to enjoy and appreciate a photographer’s work.
The photographs inside I would loosely place in four sections –
These are fairly recent (2000s) and are stunningly moody and magnificent, with brooding intense skies often dominating. Very inspiring for someone like myself who tends to enjoy the clouds above landscapes (skyscapes, you might say) more than the land itself.
Many also feature the sea, or other bodies of water, which with their reflections simply mirror and amplify the atmospheric skies.
Though they number maybe only a dozen, the book is worth the admission price for these images alone.
After an introduction from McCullin himself – interesting to hear his background and how began photography – we’re on to the next loosely collected section.
Gritty street photography from the 1950s-80s
These capture the often grim and impoverished reality of life on the streets for McCullin’s neighbours and subjects.
Aside from being moving and often quite strikingly bleak, they remain for me, just as stunning in their way as the nature landscapes.
Again here the size of the book and the quality of the printing really make the photographs come alive and draw you in deeply.
In short, the photographs in this group are magnificent.
I know I’m repeating myself, but these are unequivocally worth the price of the book, and they are plenty of them.
Amongst the street imagery are a few portraits. Now I’m not the biggest fan of street portraits, I tend to prefer seeing a whole street scene. But McCullin’s once again are so powerful as to be quite breathtaking.
One subject, known simply as Jean, has a small series of portraits, all very memorable, not least of all one that’s simply of her hands, which for me is very reminiscent of Alfred Stieglitz’s many photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands.
With the way they’re captured, and the stories the wear and grime of her skin and fingernails suggest, the image is as striking as those of her face.
Event photography from 2000s
The last section features photographs from events and gatherings on the street as well as more well known ones like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Ascot, and various country fairs.
These for me were by far the least engaging photographs of the book.
For most of them I just didn’t get why he made the pictures, and found little of interest in them. They still look good because of the quality and size of the prints, but the content left me indifferent.
If these photographs alone had been my introduction to McCullin, I doubt I would have looked any further. Given the other three sections I’ve loosely gathered together above being so very strong, I can forgive these few misses (for me).
Overall, this is a fantastic photography book I would recommend without hesitation.
The only reason I have renewed it three times from my library rather than buy a copy myself is there are a couple of other similar sized books my McCullin available around the same price, and I may get one of those first. A new one due to be published in October called The Lansdscape looks particularly enticing.
For an introduction to his work though, and a selection of images across a number of genres, you can’t go wrong with In England. A classic.
In England by Don McCullin on Amazon
In England by Don McCullin on The Book Depository
Are you familiar with this book, or indeed the photography of Don McCullin?
Please let us know below.
Read other posts in this series – Books Before Gear
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18 thoughts on “Books Before Gear #2 – In England – Don McCullin”
Sir Don McCullin (he was knighted last year) was a war photographer for many years for the ‘The Observer’ magazine and then ‘The Sunday Times’ If you can try and see the film documentary ‘McCullin – 2012’ on his life’s work, it’s very good, although I will warn you might find some content a little graphic.
Martin, thanks for the further info and link.
McCullin – Official Trailer
Good stuff … „Photography is the truth if its been handled by a truthful person.”
I was surprised to read somewhere that McCullin claims William Klein (probably my favorite photographer) as a strong influence. Everything I personally like in Klein’s photos (“raw” snapshot aesthetics, not worried about being technically perfect, some irony in most pictures) seems not characteristic of the work of Don McCullin. I do know his – impressive – photojournalistic photos of war and poverty. I am less familiar with his other work.
In McCullin’s intro in In England he gives an overview of his career. As I said in the review I would say his landscapes and portraits are well worth exploring too, though the latter fall under the “photojournalistic photos of poverty” also.
We all have influences of some kind – often from unlikely places. I recently wrote a post about my influences and after much thinking beforehand realised none of the top five were even photographers. And sometimes it’s not a direct artistic influence even. For example I love Bowie for his restless creativity and hunger to constantly reinvent himself. I don’t actually do that myself, well not to anything like the extent he did, but I do consider his approach very inspirational, even if I don’t like all or even most of his music.
Great review. I hope I can find a copy, especially for the portraits and street photography of the 50s etc.
I hope so too, it is a wonderful book, he’s a very talented man.
Not at the library, sadly.
McCullin is a true gentleman, and one of the giants.
His eye (knack) for revealing the soul of a person is surpassed by just about no-one, proving that technique and equipment really mean nothing! Others, like Brandt and Reese, put the person in the scene to highlight the environment. MuCullin got up close and looked for the echo of the environment in the subjects eyes. Some of his portraits are painfully honest, yet never judgemental or voyeuristic.
He is in my top five favorites of all time, with ‘In England’ on the lower shelve for easy access to leaf through when I need to ‘reconnect’. I have been fortunate enough to meet with Don McCullin. He is humble, warm, thoughtful and easy to approach.
He is a diamond geezer if ever there was one…
Wow Anton, great that you got to meet him. It’s good to hear when someone you admire as an artist is also such a pleasant human being too.
Do you have any other books of his?
The portraits in In England are just immense. I don’t know how to describe them but they come alive from the page somehow, it’s almost like looking at the person as if they were right in front of you.
Been thinking about a ‘3D effect’ recently.
On a physical level, it must have something to do with those little silver crystals…. and more importantly, how they react when exposed to light. It’s a physical transformation and sits above the substrate. I know this is a bit esoteric and I would struggle to try and quantify it, but it does make a difference when compared with a digitally captured image… IMHO of course 😉
I have seen many images on gallery walls where can almost reach out and ‘touch’ the scene. The realisation that each individual grain a wall-sized Sebastião Salgado image breaths life into the scene.
I’ve a few generic books of McCullin, with Sleeping with Ghost being the introductory collection, and a go to as well. One day I might be able to pick up a copy of the boxed set : DON McCULLIN – Irreconcilable Truths. But at close to a 1K at the moment, that is going to have to wait. I also like : Don Mccullin by Marc Mayer. Another lovely edition is Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.
No-one can go wrong spending time getting to know McCullin images, and the man.
Thanks for the further recommendations Anton.
Well for me photograph is still exotic sorcery whether with film or digital. Same with music recording, whether vinyl, cassette, CD or mp3. It’s all a complete mystery and a marvel!
Many thanks for this article Dan. Thanks to you I am now a bit more familiar with McCullin’s landscapes as on your recommendation I sought out a collection he put together back in 1989 called Open Skies, which I think is out of print, but I got a second hand copy on Amazon. Dark, moody, bleak images of the Somerset Levels where he lives. I’ve been studying it for a week or two now and find it hard to put down.
I was aware of his reportage work (anyone growing up in the seventies who took an interest in photography would be), but the landscapes are a revelation. Haunting and beautiful.
From a technical point of view I’d love to know his process. I suspect there was a lot of darkroom work to achieve these images and there is a documentary of YouTube where McCullin tries his first hand at digital photography, and at one point in an offhand comment where he is being shown how to use Editing software he says in amazement, that this would have taken half a day in the darkrooom to achieve. SO it suggests he’s very much of the Amstel Adams, Print as Performance school.
Link to the doc here. It’s worth watching. https://youtu.be/iueAUSnoru8
Keep up the good work and thank you again.
Ps. My Christmas list just got longer 🙂
Ansel, not Amstel … what was autocorrect thinking? Of beer presumable 😉
Thanks Tony, just seeking out the Open Skies book myself, I got some Amazon vouchers for my birthday recently… : )
There are a few photographers that I like a lot. Don McCullin is one of them. I think he suffers from the content of his photos – they are so strong on reportage that the beauty of his framing takes a back seat.
Others I like are Werner Bischof and Larry Burrows. Larry Burrows Vietnam photos are like tableaux – he saw the scene like giant 15th-century painting – so wonderful. Werner Bischof saw poetry and the human spirit everywhere. I recommend them both.
Thanks David, I’ll check those two out.
Starting to get into photography books more now, I’m realising the depth and variety of photographs as an art form far more. Online so much looks the same somehow. Maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places and by picking up a book already recognised as a classic collection, I’m not having to filter the wheat from the chaff myself so can focus on just enjoying and absorbing the images.