Between 3 February and 4 March in room 40 at the National Portrait Gallery, the photographer Don McCullin , (who is still perhaps most famous for his war photography in Vietnam and Northern Ireland) is exhibiting ten newly commissioned photographs of religious leaders taken in locations that are supposed to reflect their spiritual lives.
Fine figures all, as I am sure you will agree; and portraiture has a long and distinguished history which another exhibition at The Royal Academy aims to show something of. But do McCullin’s portraits really tell us anything new about his sitters, or is the portrait a dead art form in the age of the moving image? Would you have a portrait of yourself taken now and expect it to show everything about you to future generations? If not, what are they for?
McCullin has this to say about his own experience with churches:
I grew up bitter about religion, I don’t attend church – but in my mind there is doubt about whether I should. Because I am a compassionate person, and one cannot be compassionate and be divorced from religion at the same time. On the other hand, working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery.
I must admit that if anything is likely to drag me up to central London in the near future it won’t be posing prelates or allegorical women, it will be the Tate’s
Hogarth exhibition. Where, amongst all the other delights of moral allegory and bawdy electioneering prints, I will be admiring the work of one of the few artists who looked beyond the rich and powerful to give us images such as this
Now those are faces that have seen something of life and would have a story to tell.