I have long admired the photography of Don McCullin and only recently re-read his 1987 book Open Skies, so when a friend suggested that we go and hear him and Roman expert Barnaby Rogerson talk about McCullin's latest book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire at the Royal Geographical Society in London it sounded like a very good idea.
In Southern Frontiers, his latest book, McCullin has photographed the Roman ruins in coastal North Africa and the Lebanon as well as Hadrian's Wall in Northumbria.
Over 400 people had come to hear the talk, a fair proportion via the Royal Photographical Society, a fact acknowledged when the speakers were introduced.
The evening started with McCullin apologising for the fact the slides were in the wrong order, in fact they were in no particular order, so they would be jumping back and forth speaking about whatever slide appeared next. Added to this the laptop they had running the slides was set to slide show so unless all to be said about that particular slide had been said it was either jumped back to or simply left and onto the next one. There was even a slide that McCullin said had not come out correctly, this was skipped - but why was this included in the slide sequence?
Very little info was provided on how McCullin took the photos, other than mentioning if it was raining or the light was wrong he'd either come back later if possible or move on. Oh, and he used a yellow filter. Rogerson offered little more in his capacity as a Roman expert saying that he simply left Don to the picture taking and went for a swim once he'd shown him the location. This continued for 45 mins, then there were a few questions and it was all over. As the person sitting next but one to me said " Is that it?"
I feel this was a missed opportunity. A bit more preparation by the speakers to structure the talk drawing on their expertise and knowledge, especially given the audience (who had paid up to £20 to attend) and their interests could have made a thoroughly entertaining and educational evening.
According to his publishers website McCullin used a large format camera but the photographs shown were extremely grainy some exhibiting blown highlights, and some having no detail whatsoever in the skies, looking as if they were in fact shot on 35mm. I don't know if some were and McCullin was certainly not telling.
Regarding the actual photographs. I don't think this is McCullin's strongest work, partly down the subject, one set of Roman remains looks pretty much like another Roman remains, at least to me anyway. And where his previous work provided something that few photographers could have achieved if they had shot the same subjects, I don't think this is the case here. I am of the opinion that a competent photographer tasked with photographing these remains would produce a similar result. Especially if you print the negs with high contrast and very dark shadow details.
The exception were possibly the Hadrian's Wall images, which did exhibit some of McCullin's brooding style reminiscent of Open Skies. It is a great shame we did not see more of them.