Monday, November 12, 2012

Meeting Don McCullin

L: Film still of Don McCullin in Houston, November 11, 2012
R: McCullin and me, after our interview

Around 1970, my mother, an intrepid journalist making a series of short films about photographers, locked down an interview with the British war photographer, Don McCullin. They spent several hours in a central London hotel room conversing on topics related to Don's photography, experience at war, background, philosophy, and inspirations.

At the end of it all she edited the reels down to a 15-minute slide presentation of McCullin's photographs accompanied by his voice. This program was part of a double box set of films, Images of Man, which were distributed to educational institutions across the US by Scholastic, Inc., including programs about Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model (Model's never made it to production) and others.

Forty years later I came across a couple boxes of the analog materials at my father and stepmother's house in Waukegan, Illinois. The boxes contained filmstrips, an L.P., a Kodak Carousel of slides and a cassette tape, and print reproductions of the photographers' work. Alongside the boxes were some personal letters between my mother and the photographers, and other ephemera from the making of the projects.

My interest was peaked since my mother had died in 1979 and I knew from my father's testimonials that this was the work she was most proud of in her prolific yet shortened career. I asked my father what ever happened to the original materials, such as the interview reels, correspondence and pictures, and he told me he sent them to Cornell Capa at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in 1979 just after my mother's death, for "safe-keeping".

I promptly emailed the institution to discover that there were nearly a dozen of these boxes sitting nearly untouched in their archives as they had been for decades. A few months later I was on a plane to New York to check these out, and spent the summer of 2010 hunkered down on the 12th floor of ICP's exhibition and collections headquarters cataloging their contents.

Several months later in spring, 2011, I found myself working at ICP, employed as the manager and organizer of their entire audio-visual collections, yet still harboring the obsession of what to do with all these materials to revive my mother's work. I decided that what was driving me do this was an inextinguishable desire to reconnect with my mother, since she died before I was old enough to remember her. My personal work up until this point was largely focused on other people's stories. For example, my most significant project to date was one where I traveled around the world filming interviews with and photographing dozens of other motherless women.

Just then I was talking to my friend Pearl, a filmmaker, who pointed out to me that what was interesting about this story was the personal quest. I thought about it for a while and finally, despite my discomfort, decided that the only way to work through this life-long void I'd felt would be to make a movie about it. Once the idea took root, I realized there was no turning back.

Two weeks ago I spoke with McCullin on the phone, and he apologized but said he had no interest in being interviewed and hoped I would accept his stance that he wanted to spend his remaining time with family and in his darkroom. At the end of our chat, however, he said he'd be in Houston this week for a war photography symposium and opening and that I might find it interesting.

I took my chances and headed here on that whim, no booked interview, in sincerest hopes of tracking him down to secure one. After attempting to go through any channel of communication that might lead to an interview, I finally met up with him after his talk and he agreed to 30 minutes Sunday morning.

Today, November 12, 2012, I am sitting in Houston, Texas where, after two years of failed attempts at connection and scheduling, I just finished filming an interview with Mr. McCullin, who is one of three photographers my mother interviewed who is still living. The other two are Bruce Davidson, whom I interviewed last May, and William Albert Allard, who I plan to interview later this month.

Included here is a film still and photograph from that meeting, as well as some quotes, then and now, first from my mother's and then from my interview.

1970, London, UK
Don McCullin: There’ll never be peace in the world actually.

Sheila Turner-Seed: You don’t think so?

Don McCullin: No. Not as long as somebody is making a fortune out of making ammunition and rifles and not as long as you’ve got a politician who's ambitious enough to take his country to war or have a pointless, kind of, disagreement, you know. And there’s always somebody around who’s going to pick up the bill and that means that innocent people are going to pick up the bill.

2012, Houston, TX
Rachel Seed: You made a comment during the interview my mother did with you, "there will never be peace in the world".

DM: That's right, there won't be. Not in my time. That saves me from making a fool of myself because...the only peace that will come to this world is if we wipe it our completely and there's a huge, you know, catastrophic explosion and we're all gone.... but the way things are going, there's no let-up in revolutionary activity and causes and religious reasons to attack thy neighbor....

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