An interview with Don McCullin is never going to be a dull affair – he is a complex man who has told the story of his life many times before. He is unfailingly polite and gentlemanly, but one detects a slightly weary tone as he goes over the familiar ground. He often pre-empts the questions with clinical self-awareness.
The story of McCullin’s rise from the impoverished backstreets of Finsbury Park in north London is one of fortuitous good luck, but it didn’t start out that way. Born in 1935, he was just 14 when his father died, after which he was brought up by his dominant, and sometimes violent, mother. During National Service with Britain’s Royal Air Force, he was posted to Suez, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus, gaining experience as a darkroom assistant. He bought a Rolleicord camera for £30 in Kenya, but pawned it when he returned home to England, and started to become a bit of a tearaway.
Redemption came when his mother redeemed the camera, and MccCullin started to take photographs of a local gang, The Guvners. One of the hoodlums killed a policeman, and McCullin was persuaded to show a group portrait of the gang to The Observer. It published the photo, and kick-started a burgeoning career as a photographer for the newspaper.
It’s a spectacularly beautiful early morning in December and the traffic is rolling past indifferently on one of North London’s less than silent streets. I’m standing in front of a large red door, having come to visit David King and his world-famous collection documenting the extraordinary visual history of the Soviet Union. King has been assembling the collection for almost five decades and now it is in the process of being transferred to the archives of Tate Modern. The collection has always run in parallel to his work as a graphic designer, photographer and author – work, it is fair to say, that shows influence from the Bolshevik-era material he has discovered on his many visits to the former USSR, and which he has often drawn from in his books, posters, photographs and graphic work.
What goes into creating an icon? Our latest issue scrutinises the muses, photographers and designers that go into creating unmistakable images that speak to the culture of the time – from early 20th century Soviet agitprop to a working-class lad from east London who somehow became one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. BRAND BECKHAM: THE MAKING OF A MODERN ICON “He makes it look so simple…but believe me, it is not.” – Graham Taylor “He is such a big celebrity, football is only a small part.” – Sir Alex Ferguson “It is rare a man can be that tough on the field and also have his own line of underwear.” – President Barack Obama For most figures of popular culture, the acute gaze of the lens is part of the job – to be captured for public consumption, to create a personal iconography that relates to your art. We expect our musicians, our artists and our actors to transform themselves, we demand a visual flair. But from a midfielder from Leytonstone? Not …