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Matinee: Don McCullin In 'Seeking the Light' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

20 September 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fifty-first in our series of Saturday matinees today: Seeking the Light: Don McCullin's Journey into Digital.

"Timing is everything," someone once said at an inopportune moment. And today, with Photokina winding down and video proof of the new Apple iPhone 6 bouncing off concrete unscathed, we sneak back a bit in time to watch British photographer Don McCullin meet his first digital camera.

This half-hour presentation is a production of the Canon Professional Network and consequently shows off the Canon 5D Mark III McCullin falls in love with. But look beyond that.

'One must not think about doing things in life. You must do them."

McCullin spent a morning with Canon Ambassador Jeff Ascough, who showed him around the 5D Mark III. How to turn it on. How to change aperture with a thumb wheel. How to focus using the AF On button (rather than constantly half-pressing the Shutter button).

McCullin takes a shot of Ascough to see how it feels. "It's not bad really," he says, surprised. "I could get to like doing this."

It turns out the technological leap isn't so much a challenge as a liberation. At the end of the video he muses he might have had three times the number of great shots in his career if it had been done digitally instead of with film.

Look beyond that, too.

McCullin, at 77 in this piece, already has a lifetime of photography under his belt. That's where you want to focus.

He says the biggest problem with digital photography is chimping. When you look away from the scene, you've disengaged. You have to have the discipline to keep your eye in the viewfinder, on the scene, or you'll miss the shot.

He talks focal lengths, too. He's smitten with the 24mm. Where have you been all my life, he cries. And he's right at home with the 135mm. He wears one on one shoulder and the other on the other. We kept worrying he'd tip to one side or the other as he runs down a hill or across a bridge, but he carries himself upright. He's a straight shooter in more than one way.

After the first day of shooting, which has a lull in the afternoon before an evening storm provides some drama, Ascough sits him down in front of Lightroom and manipulates an image for him, applying a graduated filter to a bright sky.

McCullin is a little uncomfortable with that. But Ascough assures him he wasn't doing anything McCullin couldn't do in the darkroom. "No dark arts, no dishonesty or adding things that weren't there. We only printed the information that was contained in his files," Ascough says in a comment on the YouTube page.

A sky had disappointed McCullin with its lack of tonality. Ascough recovers the highlights and the drama comes alive. McCullin begins to like what he sees. And later he's amazed at how, in just minutes, the system can deliver a print that would have taken him all morning in the darkroom.

This isn't so much about an older photographer wondering if he can learn a new approach as it is about a skilled craftsman wondering how the technology can expand his expectations of the art.

It isn't all craft and technology, though. McCullin talks about how being a war photographer made him feel, how he turned to landscapes to recover, how people told him his landscapes were dark, how that was a reflection of where he was coming from.

He has, by the end of the film, more than a little enthusiasm for continuing his career, seeing the new tools as an end run against the limitations of old age and the elements. "One must not think about doing things in life. You must do them," he says.

And he did. Ascough recounts that McCullin returned "to Syria to shoot the conflict there with his 5D Mark III cameras. He could have easily have used film, but he didn't."

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