Few photographers in Britain have reached fully fledged celeb status. David Bailey probably does get recognised in the street: his face was seen for years in a long-running advertising campaign. A handful of poseurs (such a good word for a photographer) periodically get themselves into the press for stepping out with a model and that’s about it. Don McCullin’s fame is different: he is known as the most eminent war photographer in Britain.

An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, now moved to London from a first showing at the IWM North, uses that fame to good purpose. If you were looking at horrors from round the world between 1960 and 1990, the chances were that you were looking at them through McCullin’s virtuoso photography. McCullin was a lion of physical courage. Again and again he went where no sane person would willingly go.

Robert Capa is often quoted as saying that if the picture isn’t good enough, you weren’t close enough. McCullin was certainly close enough, and his talent goes far beyond simple macho posturing. He is also a brilliant visual communicator, absolutely serious about his skills. He is highly literate in the photography of his predecessors, and was always determined to learn. Today, towards the end of his career, he is a master printer as well as a master picture-maker. It’s wrong to pigeonhole him simply as dominating the niche “war photographer”. He was a great reporter, on a par with James Cameron or Robert Fisk or numerous others.

At the same time, his moral compass seems to have been impeccable. In his work McCullin knew the terrible dilemma of choosing whether to help a person who needed help or to take the picture. This exhibition shows that, often enough, he put down his cameras and helped. A specially recorded interview (which plays all round the gallery spaces in little chunks where appropriate) shows a man able to wrestle at close quarters with ethical hydras. McCullin knows that he became a specialist in showing things that nobody really wants to see, and he remains convinced that in spite of all the horror, and the huge personal costs to himself, it was important and right to continue to do so.

The exhibition is superficially a retrospective of the work of this extraordinary man. As such, it is a very good exhibition. The museum has done him proud in terms of sheer quality of display, many of the images printed by McCullin specially for the show. One of his prints of desperate men foraging for usable bits of coal, from Sunderland in 1963, is breathtaking in its mastery of emotive black and white. His famous shell-shocked soldier is here in two prints, one a huge exhibition print and the other a touching work print still covered in sticky yellow notes of printing instructions. There are magazine spreads and covers, some blown up to wall-size, and the usual modern gamut of automated timelines, screens, soundbite dispensers and so on.

I was puzzled, though. Although the IWM holds one of the most important collections of photographs in the country, it is not primarily a photographic museum, and this is not primarily a photography show. It is crammed with things that are not photographs, and they made me pause. Following contemporary practice, the show is full of display cases of objects belonging to McCullin and used by him – his US-Army issue helmet from Vietnam, for instance, complete with the graffiti KALAMAZOO, or a camera that stopped a bullet that would otherwise have hurt him. But suddenly, a surprise: McCullin has a medal. This great messenger of man’s inhumanity to man holds the Africa Medal, with Kenya Bar, for service against the Mau-Mau as a very junior RAF officer in 1955. We see a large number of references to McCullin’s own woundings. We see his struggles against such faceless opponents of truth as the Ministry of Defence, which refused to take him to the Falklands on the (probably sensible) grounds that he was far too great a reporter to be satisfied with saying what they would want him to say. We see film of McCullin coming back to visit in (troubled) peacetime those whose parents he had photographed in war.

This all seems to add up to something more than a plain tribute to a highly distinguished man. It is as if the Imperial War Museum is trying to show McCullin’s extraordinary career and character as a kind of acceptable moral guide. He is not of the military, yet so closely associated with them that he owned a bayonet. Manifestly not in any crude sense “against” war as such, and yet clearly pointing to the hideous human cost that war necessarily implies, McCullin is depicted as a saintly moral campaigner.

It’s debatable whether that does justice to a lifetime of professional and personal struggles; McCullin is both complex and reticent. But Shaped by War does make clear that he is a fine photographer and a great man.

Continues to April 15, london.iwm.org.uk

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