Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Books of Photographs

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Books of Photographs

Article excerpt

In England by Don McCullin (Cape, £35) is, as might be expected, more gritty than pretty. Yet it is approachably humane compared with his famous war photography, where from Vietnam to Beirut the horrors are as terrible as Goya's.

McCullin escaped the London gangland of Finsbury Park by means of the photograph that forms the frontispiece of this book. It shows The Guvnors, a gang of young men with whom he had grown up, posing in the sun in their sharp Fifties Sunday suits and thin ties on the beams of a half demolished house. One of them was hanged after a policeman was knifed; McCullin sold his picture to the Observer, and set off into a wider world of war.

In England represents the gaps between foreign assignments: potato-pickers in Hertfordshire in 1961, looking for all the world like Romanian migrants today; in Whitechapel, from the same year, a headscarfed homeless woman sitting on a bed next to shabby suitcases opposite her five grubby children on a bunk; from Liverpool in the 1970s a child running over shiny black streets, between spaces where houses once stood.

Don McCullin excels in placing lone figures in desolate industrial landscapes. A solitary cyclist, leaving tracks in the coaldust by a railway line at a pithead in Doncaster (1967), stares from beneath a crooked black beret, as he grasps the handlebars, a lit cigarette deftly poised between two fingers. But even a drunk, disturbed down-and-out collapsed near an open fire in Spitalfields (the kind we used to call meths-drinkers, who seem now almost extinct) retains a human individuality through McCullin's lens.

He prefers not to include wordy explanations in his books of photographs. Much, then, depends on the caption. In this latest book, a rugged man wearing a neckerchief and looking out intently is captioned: 'Gypsy, Kent, 1961'. In Don McCullin (2001) the caption was: 'Gypsy watching the police evict his family, Kent, early 1960s'. The words make all the difference.

So they do in a photograph by the crime photographer Weegee. 'Their first murder, New York' (1941), shows a little girl jostling with other children in the street to see the dead person out of the shot but suggested by the caption. This comes in Max Kozloff's Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography since 1900 (Phaidon, £39.95).

His range is wider than the title suggests, for he counts as portraits any photographs that show faces. Portraiture in this sense he regards as the prime object of photography.

Yet context may speak louder than the person. In Eugene Atget's picture, 'Versailles Prostitute' (1921), a cobbled street and the surface of the old building against which she leans are as much characters as the woman herself. By contrast, in Brassai's 'A Prostitute Playing Russian Billiards, Montmartre' (1932), never mind the billiards, the eye is caught by the woman's impenetrable gaze, defying us to read her secrets.

Kozloff leans toward the American, though his interest in the place of individuals in society forces him to take notice of August Sander's methodic survey of German life. Very memorable too are examples of the work of the Peruvian Martin Chambi from the Cusco of the 1920s and 1930s.

One, 'Popular Musicians' (1934) shows four men standing with their instruments poised, a ukulele, mandolin, a strange swollen-bellied harp, and, at the end of the line-up, a violin in the hands of the anomalous member of the quartet with a faraway look. Unlike the other three he has no jacket, but wears a guernsey, and one sandal.

A variant of the portrait is explored by Libby Hall in These Were Our Dogs (Bloomsbury, £18. …

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