Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue, taken during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, is not only one of the most recognisable McCullin photos but one of the most famous in any genre.
That status was obvious when a gelatin silver print (printed later), signed, titled, dated and annotated in pencil on the verso, came to auction at Phillips in London on May 16 estimated at £7000-9000 in the May Photographs sale.
The 20.5 x 13.5in (52 x 34cm) image sold for £20,000 (£25,000 with premium) – a new world auction record for McCullin. It sold to a private international client online.
According to Phillips, the previous record was previous record was £18,750, set in 2011.
The Tate retrospective, which ended on May 9, included many of his war photographs – including images from Vietnam, Northern Ireland and more recently Syria - but also focused on the work he did at home in England, recording scenes of poverty and working class life in London’s East End and the industrial north, as well as meditative landscapes of his beloved Somerset, where he lives.
McCullin (now Sir Don) was born in 1935 and grew up in a deprived area of north London. The Tate said: “He got his first break when a newspaper published his photograph of friends who were in a local gang. From the 1960s he forged a career as probably the UK’s foremost war photographer, primarily working for the Sunday Times Magazine.”
The show included a 2013 print of Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue.
In a 2014 interview with the Tate, McCullin said: “This was a shell-shocked soldier from the 5th marine battalion. I just found him sitting on a wall, he’d got to a point in the battle, or in his life, that he couldn’t take any more of it. And I asked somebody ‘what’s the matter with him’, and he said ‘he’s shell shocked’.
“And so I kind of dropped down on my knees and took five frames with my 35mm camera of this soldier and he never blinked an eye, his eyes were completely fixed on one place. He was staring off into the horizon and every negative I took of this man is identical I checked them all out thoroughly.”
After he left the soldier there was an “almighty explosion”. McCullin “I don’t know whether that explosion, which was an incoming mortar shell, killed this soldier, I knew it wounded some people in there. I feel slightly ashamed I didn’t go to check to see whether he was injured or still alive.”
McCullin admitted he had seen the photo so many times afterwards he became somewhat tired of it and it even got on his nerves. As for any message it conveys, he said he wasn’t sure but it could perhaps be seen as “a kind of silent protest in a way, to express a kind of silent protest about the futility of war. You can see this man’s life has possibly been damaged forever; on the other hand he is in the military, he knew there would be some eventual situation that would bring great fear and harm to him possibly.”
You can listen to the Tate interview here.