Few have enjoyed a career as long as Sir Don McCullin’s. Over decades, he has proven himself in the field, documenting wars overseas to poverty in London’s East End. He's also captured still-lifes, powerful portraits and, most recently, the raw humanity of Kolkata. Countless people know his iconic images, but Mark George – Don’s manager and friend for more than 35 years – paints an intimate, personal picture of the man behind the shots.
“I was brought up to quickly recognise people for what they are – it's been a very useful skill for me in my business. Don is fascinating and, at the same time, really admirable as a character because he’s such a down-to-earth man.
“He came from humble beginnings and ever since then he's been photographing humble people. That's the reason why he connects with the people in the pictures he's taken. If you had a different photographer standing next to him photographing the same person, the connection would be completely different. I believe there’s a magic in photography where your soul filters itself through your hands and into the pictures you take.
I believe there’s a magic in photography where your soul filters itself through your hands and into the pictures you take.
“I met Don soon after I started managing photographers in the late 1970s. We had a mutual friend and one day Don just called me up. Like everyone else, I was fairly awed by him because he was this guy we all knew about. What immediately struck me was his moral code: he's unbelievably honest, very loyal and extremely reliable. He has a reputation for being serious, so one thing about him I didn't expect to find is that he's got an incredibly good sense of humour.”
“As with the other photographers I’ve represented, I advised Don on the creative and financial aspects of his work. He worked for The Sunday Times, among other newspapers, and when he left in 1984, he had no experience of the commercial world so needed some advice. But I also advised him on personal matters and got to know him very well.
“Don is as straight as a die. That makes him a joy to represent because once he's committed to a project, there's no nervousness about it. He wants to make sure whoever he's working for is happy with what he delivers. He’s very professional and doesn’t care how much work he does on a job in order to get it done.
“I'm sure some of that attitude comes from the time he was sent away to wars by The Sunday Times. He simply had to come back with photographs. He was doing an important job and couldn't let anyone down. This approach has become part of his character and his work.”
Some people are quite snobbish about advertising and said he was selling out by doing commercial work.
“Don and I have done a lot of advertising work over the years and we’ve produced some fantastic campaigns. One memorable shoot was the Metropolitan Police recruitment campaign in 1988, which won a lot of awards. Some people are quite snobbish about advertising and said he was selling out by doing commercial work. But, like anyone else, he has to earn a living.
“Advertising work is just as artistic as editorial work. It's actually more exacting because you've got to produce a photograph that will work commercially. That is very different to a photograph that's going in a magazine editorial. One of the reasons you're paid so well is that you have to reach a target audience – you need the right location, casting, emotion and message.
“However, during all the years I've represented him, I have never, until we went to Kolkata, witnessed him working in the environment from which his name has been made: street photography and photographing interesting and unusual people. It was a real treat for me. Even though he was 81 years old, it was bloody hard keeping up with him. While we were getting kit out of the car, he would slide out the door and be gone. There wasn't one boring second.”
HE'S REGARDED AS THE GREATEST LIVING PHOTOGRAPHER OF CONFLICT.
"Don has an enormous amount of empathy for people and that's why he's regarded as the greatest living photographer of conflict. For Don, war is all about poor people getting hurt. When wars come, the rich people are able to disappear quickly while poor people are left behind to deal with the situation. As I said, he comes from humble beginnings and he photographs humble people.
“His dedication to capturing images is hugely inspiring to photographers of all ages. When he is away photographing wars he calls me all the time to tell me what’s happening. One time, very recently in fact, he called me from Damascus, Syria. I asked him how it was going. He said, ‘Well, I can hear heavy cannon fire in the distance but there's a lot of small arms fire through the night, in quite close proximity.’
“In that situation, most other people would be running for the hills, but Don was pleased. He said, ‘It was great! It made me feel like I was in the right place.’ He was 82 at the time. Remarkable.”
McCullin in Kolkata was premiered at Camerimage 2017, in Poland. To find out more about the latest EOS 5D camera, the EOS 5D Mark IV, which McCullin used on his Kolkata project, visit the product page.