History Through a Lens
DON McCULLIN, who specialized in war photography, produced some of the most objective material of the Vietnam War. Author of five books on crises he covered photographically, his latest, Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography (Alfred A. Knopf, 287 pp., 94 photographs, $24), is his life story.
As a boy, McCullin survived the bombing of London during World War II. Family illness and resulting hardship became an obsession. Eventually, he joined a gang - the Governors of Seven Sisters Road - who became the subjects of his first published photographs when a murder drew attention to their turf.
Years later, the London Sunday Times became his home base where he spent 18 years photo graphing crises.
McCullin photographed numerous conflicts during the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961; the war in Cyprus, for which he won the World Press Photo Award in 1964; conflicts in Africa and Vietnam; events in Beirut nearly 20 years later.
A sense of mission drove him to these scenes. "Your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help," he writes. Throughout this autobiography, and through his stark photographs, he succeeds in convincing himself and the reader that war is hell.
Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott, (Alfred A. Knopf, 297 pp., 92 photographs, $35), a biography written by Washington Post feature writer Paul Hendrickson, is a laboriously detailed account of how Wolcott contributed to what is often considered the greatest photo documentary of American life ever made.
Photographs of the Great Depression, thousands of which are on file at the Library of Congress, were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The project was to provide government-approved images of life in the United States to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Unexpectedly, it gained recognition as a work of art in itself and is still considered a standard in photography.
While studying the prints and information on file, Hendrickson was surprised to find so little about Wolcott, who contributed substantially. Her work was overshadowed by some of the photographers who came to the project with established reputations, and who remained in the select group longer than her three years. After she returned to domestic life, her talents and work were shelved.
The description of the behind-the-scenes activities of the FSA's staff is fascinating reading, as is the adventurous story of this young woman traveling alone in an early model automobile over rough roads in the toughest areas of the United States.
Some of her subjects, living in the most abject poverty, didn't allow her to photograph their dwellings or private lives. Among the hundreds of memorable images she produced is one of a migrant family of seven loosely posed in front of a towel drying on a clothesline. The gaping rip in the towel emphasizes a quote from the mother: "We ain't never lived like hogs before, but we sure does now."
Henderickson has gone to considerable effort to seek out some of the very scenes depicted in the photographs.
Today, Wolcott's work is included in permanent collections of major museums of art and photography, and in several books.
These books offer lasting impressions of two outstanding photographers.