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.
“People say that John was brilliant but tricky, but he was only difficult if you were being mediocre,” says Sacha Lehrfreund, John Reardon’s long term partner and one-time colleague. “In a professional capacity he wanted to be excellent. He pushed it beyond a point that was comfortable for lots of people, but he made you better than you might otherwise be.”
“John Reardon was an artist,” says Greg Whitmore, picture editor of The Observer and another former colleague. “You can see it the photographs of Handsworth cricket fans, the Kosovan woman and baby, the portrait of Fergus Henderson…John was one of the greats of his generation.” John Reardon, a celebrated photojournalist who went on to shoot equally celebrated celebrity portraits for The Observer, has died aged 66.
Just three months after blacklisting the photographer Terry Richardson amid allegations of sexual misconduct with models, Condé Nast has dropped two more high-profile contributors after similar claims – Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. Anna Wintour, artistic director of Condé Nast and editor in chief of Vogue, has published a personal statement on 13 January in which she writes that: “Even as we stand with victims of abuse and misconduct, we must also hold a mirror up to ourselves—and ask if we are doing our utmost to protect those we work with so that unacceptable conduct never happens on our watch. Sometimes that means addressing the fact that such behavior can occur close to home. Today, allegations have been made against Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, stories that have been hard to hear and heartbreaking to confront. Both are personal friends of mine who have made extraordinary contributions to Vogue and many other titles at Condé Nast over the years, and both have issued objections or denials to what has emerged. I believe strongly in the value of remorse and forgiveness, but I take the allegations very seriously, and we at Condé Nast have decided to put our working relationship with both photographers on hold for the foreseeable future.”
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.