Southern Frontiers, A Journey Across the Roman Empire, book review

Southern Frontiers by Don McCullin - Book Review

Quite properly the photographs are given the space to speak for themselves. There is a generally consistent format for each pair of facing pages – a full page for the photograph and almost blank page with just a caption. Captions vary in length from a couple of short lines to a short paragraph. Occasionally related photographs face each across a double page spread. All the pictures are excellently printed with a rich range of tones on heavy paper. Southern Frontiers explores the architectural remains left behind by the Roman Empire. The images are mostly of large scale ruins of once ornate Roman building long since robbed out to just leave the remaining stones to hint at a majestic past. They are set in the context of the wider, often desert, landscape. There are also detail photographs of architecture and statuary. Like the main views they are superbly lit. 

Not Just About Past Times, the Present is Also Here

Many of the images set the ruins in front of the modern towns that have grown up around them so they are not entirely isolated from the modern world. It hints that there is a story as to how the world has moved on since the Romans left.  McCullin and People   Throughout his career McCullins has been renowned for his sensitive portrayal of people often in the most difficult of conditions. Although Southern Frontiers is about architecture, history and landscape McCullin does not neglect his instincts for photographing people. They are allowed into some shots, usually as family and other social groups enjoying the historic sites. For many readers of Southern Frontiers it is these photographs with people that will have the strongest impact. After all, even as superbly photographed as they are, one ruined colonnade begins to look much like all the others. It is the very comprehensive nature of the coverage that inevitably creates some feeling of repetition. However after an initial reading, Southern Frontiers is a book that will be dipped into to explore favourite images rather than read cover to cover which will eliminate the sense of duplication.  

A Major Work by a Great Photographer

Southern Frontiers shows aspects of Don McCullin only hinted at in his early work . Apart from his landscape and this architectural skills it demonstrates his ability as an artist and as a technician. McCullin acknowledges the similar work of the Victorian photographer, Francis Frith and others who were amongst the first to use photography to record these and other remains of classical antiquity. With a similar feel Southern Frontiers contributes a worthy update to the work of those early pioneers and will further cement McCullins reputation. Whilst hopefully not Don McCullin’s swansong he does acknowledge his age and how it now prevents him getting some of the shots he wants. A fall during the shooting of Southern Frontiers led him to end up in hospital. In his introduction to Southern Frontiers dated 2009 he finishes with: “Now I think it is all over for me. I am going to surround myself with simple mundane things to photograph. I am going to find the ordinary and obvious. It will be soothing and calming, ... I am admitting I am an old man.” He was 75 on publication of Southern Frontiers and his many fans will hope it is not all over and fully expect that his photographs of the ordinary and obvious will be anything but mundane. Southern Frontiers is most certainly not.

Southern Frontiers, A Journey Across the Roman Empire (2010, ISBN: 9780224087087) by Don McCullin is published on 4th March 2010 as a large format hardback by Jonathan Cape at £50. The text was provided by Barnaby Rogerson.

As an added bonus at the back of Southern Frontiers tucked away after the acknowledgements are three photographs of Hadrian's Wall in Northern Britain. Roman Empire's northern-most frontier.

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