Don McCullin reveals the picture that began his extraordinary career in photography. Interview by Tony Barrell
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2007
Sir Don McCullin’s first professional photograph, the one that kicked off his long career, is of a ruined building whose scarred timbers are exposed to the sunlight. It wasn’t taken in Vietnam, Cambodia, Cyprus, Congo, Lebanon, Northern Ireland or any of the other theatres of conflict that made this photographer justly famous. Look at the picture and you will see seven young men in suits, positioned stylishly in different sections of the building.
Later, that cinema over the road would become the famous Rainbow rock venue, playing host to concerts by David Bowie and Bob Marley
This is Finsbury Park, north London, where McCullin grew up, and the men were members of a gang, “the Guvnors”, that he knew well. It was 1958 and the Guvnors were about to go to the cinema over the road. They might have been going to see The Big Country, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or one of the other top movies released that year. Somewhere a Bakelite wireless might have been playing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ by Elvis Presley, or Cliff Richard’s debut disc, ‘Move It’. Later, as fashions changed and people stopped wearing suits on Sundays, that same cinema would become the famous Rainbow rock venue, playing host to concerts by David Bowie, Bob Marley, Roxy Music, and Eric Clapton.
I didn’t have an exposure meter or anything. I processed the film the next day, and the negative was perfect
So the gang had some time to kill, and young McCullin possessed a nice Rolleicord camera, which he had bought towards the end of his national service with the RAF. Why not have some pictures taken for a bit of fun? So he nipped home, which was in the same street, and fetched his camera. “I didn’t have an exposure meter or anything,” recalls McCullin. “I just said to them, ‘Get in there, and you get in there, and you get in there…’ I processed the film the next day, and the negative was perfect.”
Then destiny intervened. The Guvnors were involved in a fight with another gang, and in the melee a policeman was stabbed to death. Because some of the gang were suspects, McCullin’s picture was suddenly a hot property, and he sold it to the national press. “And then I went off and started taking more pictures.” ♦
© 2018 Tony Barrell
Photograph © Don McCullin/Contact Press Images