100 Works of Art: (Visual) A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin

For an overview of why this series of posts is all personal and not very intelligent, please see the first post in the series.

10. A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin (1963)

Alongside Robert Mapplethorpe (whose work I will be talking about later), Don McCullin is one of the photographers I was introduced to by my secondary school art teacher, Ros Wilson. While the majority of the teachers at my school were … sub-optimal … Ros was keen to introduce us to new art which we might enjoy, and some of the photography books she kept around were compilations of the work of Don McCullin. I would say then that I’ve been a fan of his work since I was 15/16, and when I went to the Imperial War Museum for my last birthday it was to see Shaped By War, their exhibition on the war photography and later works of that renowned photographer. It was extremely moving, and in some parts too much to bear.

The picture I would have liked to include here is virtually impossible to find online, and I do not have the requisite book to scan it from: India. The picture in question is of a woman with cholera, slowly dying or perhaps already dead, on a mattressless bedstead in a flooded and inadequate hospital. The image has haunted me for well over a decade, and has inspired at least one short story and countless poems.

A man walks towards the   chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin
A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool by Don McCullin

This image also haunts me. It is the same as a photograph of a dead relative, peered at through the shroud of years; this is the England that was in its final death throes when I was very young. My earliest years were sound-tracked by news reports of nuclear weapons and the death of British Industry, and images like this one came to my ears in the doleful modern folk music my mother taped covertly from Radio 2 specials.

It is more evocative of the death of an era than older paintings of the green and pleasant land have ever been, because it’s the death of a corpse; England the industrial nation devoured England the agricultural nation, and the spat-out remains of industry: the black-lunged miners, the steel-workers trudging through smoky skies in a perfect vision of what 19th and 20th century writers thought was a perfect vision of hell, the darkened hive.

This bleak landscape, oft complained-of, was giving way to a different bleakness when I was young. But it was still ingrained in our national consciousness, and the ghost it represents is almost solid. This is the landscape of the youth of my generations’ parents, this underpinning the righteous march of progress and liberty that the hippies were so sure of: a sky turned to night by smoke.

It is the lonely figure that makes the image special. He is in silhouette, his head down, as much as stack as the chimneys, lying vertical while smoke, land, and fencing lies horizontally. He becomes a part of the brutal scenery while standing out from it as the focus. He is walking away from us, into the belching chimneys, into the grind. His shoulders are up: he is probably cold. The walk may be long.

In this image the steel worker may be a thousand mythic heroes, each one of them trudging resolutely into Hell or Hades for a showdown, and he has the impact of pathos that your Orpheuses lack.

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