On a recent trip to Tate Britain, it was the photographer Don McCullin whose exhibits most impressed me. His incisive photographs from military conflicts across the globe evoked the very sounds of hurried footsteps and gunfire, while his photographs of the English homeless managed to draw compassion without encouraging sanctimony, their weathered hands and withered faces ennobled and dignified through his lens.
But in stark contrast to the leaden toughness of these photographs, I discovered afterwards that McCullin’s capabilities were by no means constrained to documenting conflict.
“I had practically levitated a couple of inches off the ground”, wrote McCullin, of the moment he was invited to photograph The Beatles in 1968. Confessing to feeling out of his depth, and evidently lacking experience with bands, he described the shoot as “chaotic”, but not – or not only – in terms of his own inexperience.
Paul McCartney wrote that he and his bandmates had agreed to work to McCullin’s strengths. “We thought, ‘we’ve got to be the war. We’ll provide the battlefield and it’ll work. He’ll just click into action’. The resulting photoshoot gave us some of The Beatles’ most iconic images. A punch-up on a rooftop? Sure. A piano session with a parrot? Why not? The photoshoot became known among Beatles fans as “The Mad Day Out”, and there is no greater testament to Don McCullin’s skill than the fact that these photographs, from one single day, made the sole subject of a book, published in 2010.
Magnificent stuff. But don’t miss his Tate Britain exhibition.