While still in my 20s, I showed David Hurn my photographs, the results of more than seven years of struggle to be a photographer. It took him about 30 seconds to look through the lot and deliver his judgment: boring. “Derivative”, he said. “You won’t make it.”
We have been friends ever since.
And he has continued to be my goad, my conscience, my adviser and, best of all, my fiercest critic. Do you know how rare, how valuable, is such a friend, whose devastating frankness is wholly welcome because it is abundantly evident that such criticism taps the wellsprings of love and not competitiveness, petty jealousies or self-aggrandizement?
Of course, I do not always agree with his opinions or follow his advice and, even here, in the spurning of his best intentions, David Hurn is supportive, as if to say: “He asked for my opinion; I gave it my best shot; but the decision is his to make.”
[David and I jointly authored a book, On Being a Photographer, which was first published in 1997, and is now published and distributed by LensWork Publishing. It is a dialogue, but the dominant voice is the photographer’s. It includes a personal essay on David Hurn’s career and attitudes, providing a context for the conversation. This is a slightly edited version of that introduction.]
I tell you these facts, and will relate the circumstances of our first meetings, because David Hurn’s candor permeates these pages. Nowhere else that I know of will the young photographer meet in print a mentor who can or will speak with such directness and relevancy to the step-by-step issues which are always present in the medium, but rarely discussed.
Perhaps I should be equally direct with the reader. David Hurn, like any other great photographer, has an agenda which is not at all hidden. He believes passionately in a particular approach to the medium- his approach. He advocates a very specific way of thinking and working as a photographer because he has committed his professional life to a singular band of the photographic spectrum, what he would call reportage, or eyewitness photography. It is therefore fair to ask: just how relevant is this book to young photographers who intend to reside in any one of the other multihued bands of the spectrum which together make up the medium we call photography?
I would assert its relevance and usefulness to all photographers for many reasons, among which would include: the importance of clear thinking in developing an intellectual rationale for any method of working; the emphasis that the subject, the thing itself, is the genesis of all types of photography; the insistence that a clarity of vision is aided by clarity of mind; the greater appreciation of other photographers’ work which comes from understanding their philosophical underpinnings (even photographers are viewers of photographs as much as takers and makers); the assertion that humanism is inseparable from art, however defined or created; the demonstration that there is no substitute, in any endeavor, for commitment and hard work.
Nevertheless, it is true that David Hurn’s commentary will be of special relevance to young photographers who believe that there is no greater thrill or satisfaction (or frustration) than confronting people and places, and, from that heady, chaotic flux of life, selecting images of direct simple beauty and truthfulness.
This is charged language! Beauty? Truthfulness? I am aware of the danger in introducing these words so early in our narrative, but, do not fear, I confidently expect them to become more comfortable as they become more familiar.
But right now we have a more pressing need. I want to introduce you to the person who will give you guidance On Being a Photographer…
David Hurn was born in Redhill, Surrey, England, on 21 July 1934. Technically, therefore, he is an Englishman – but that is a quirk of circumstances. By genes, temperament and choice he is a Welshman, from his primary school education in Cardiff to his present home in Tintern, where he lives in a 600-year-old stone cottage overlooking the river Wye, backed by continuous falls of water trickling over and around the steep banks of his terraced garden. A short walk down river are the ruins of the early 12th century Tintern Abbey, celebrated by William Wordsworth in his famous poem of 1798. The river is flanked by meadows and woods where David used to ramble with his dogs which accompanied him on his photographic expeditions around Wales.
Tintern is rooted in the distant past. Its pastoral sleepy beauty clashes with the raucous machines driven through its narrow main street; old sheep farmers live cheek-by-jowl with artists and stockbrokers; weathered stone cottages built by manual labor now house fax machines and computers; it is a place called home and a tourist mecca. These clashes of old and new, rich and poor, ancient and modern, are a microcosm of the changes taking place in Wales and reflect the underlying themes of David Hurn’s incessant imagery.
During his schooldays David was not considered a promising student: far from it. He emerged from his education with no qualifications for anything, due to a form of what is now known as dyslexia. “No one understood the term or the condition in those days,” says David, “and so you were just ‘thick’ [stupid]”.
It was impossible for him to cope with the written examinations which, then more than now, were essential in any subject, especially the sciences, and which were requisites for the life of a veterinarian, his aspiration. But David did excel in sports, particularly track events and rugby. When he reached the age when every British male youth was required to spend two years in the armed forces (National Service) his sporting prowess helped to secure for him a place at the prestigious Royal Military College, Sandhurst, the training ground for British Army officers. It seemed that David was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Stanley, as a career soldier. Stanley had volunteered for the Welsh Guards just before the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and rose rapidly through the ranks to become a major in Special Operations. This was a remarkable achievement and one which the son might have emulated.
Photography changed all that.
Ever anxious to gain more freedom from the rigid, cloistered and spartan life of the Sandhurst cadet, David noticed that the only students allowed outside the college were members of the camera club – the darkrooms were located near the local town. Buying a camera had nothing to do with a love of photography, but it was merely a passport to freedom. Unfortunately, he was required to take at least some token pictures for the college notice board which necessitated actually loading the camera with film! David bought a cheap little how-to-do-it book (probably one of the Focal Guides so popular at the time) and taught himself the rudiments of photography. He still believes in the efficacy of this solitary education. “In my opinion there are two efficient ways to learn: apprentice yourself to a top professional or teach yourself. The problem with photography is that everyone does it, believes he/she does it well (and would do it better if only he/she could buy a better camera or take more time off) and so this individual produces bad pictures because he/she is doing everything wrong but passes on bad advice out of ignorance. The problem with receiving bad advice is that you do not realize that the advice is bad when you are a beginner, and the bad habits become ingrained and very, very difficult to remove. My advice is: learn from the best or teach yourself. And do not bother at all if you do not have an exaggerated sense of curiosity.”
After absorbing the instructions in his guidebook, David began to record the daily life of his fellow cadets. This led in turn to looking at published photographs more carefully, and he discovered a clash between the messages of the images and of his military officers. In particular, a photo-essay on Russia by Henri Cartier-Bresson, although David was ignorant of the authorship at the time, published in Picture Post (29 January, 5, 12, 19 February 1955) and in other magazines including Life, seemed to contradict the propaganda he was being force-fed by the college’s instructors, and the weight of evidence was in favor of the images.
One image struck him most forcibly: it showed a Russian soldier in a department store buying a new hat for his wife.
“I remember most distinctly accompanying my parents on a shopping trip to Howells (a smart department store in Cardiff) as soon as my father had returned from the war. I was about eleven. And he bought my mother a hat. My memory of that event and the emotion of the Russian picture were identical. I had been led to believe that all Russians were desperately poor and grotesquely belligerent, yet here was a Russian who seemed to be reasonably affluent, at least with enough spare cash to buy his wife a gift, and who was displaying human emotions of tenderness and caring. This image had the touch of authenticity. It felt real and true.” David began to question and challenge his teachers, skilled practitioners in propaganda, and soon developed a distinctly suspicious attitude towards the military. “What I saw in my viewfinder and in published images”, he says, “made me profoundly pacifist”; hardly an encouraging trait in a future military officer.
The Army and David Hurn mutually agreed that he was not suited to a soldier’s life.
In 1955, David Hurn had exchanged a rifle for a camera and determined that he would be a photographer.
To that end, David moved to London, secured a job (selling shirts in Harrods, the ritzy West End store patronized by Royalty) and met a man at an exhibition who was to be a major photographic influence in his life: Michael Peto.
The exhibition was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, then situated behind the National Gallery, and featured a rare show of photographs, by the photographer responsible in large part for David’s disaffection for the military, Henri Cartier-Bresson. David’s intensity of focus on the images attracted the attention of another visitor on that day, and Michael Peto, already a leading British photographer, introduced himself to the earnest young man. Peto was a charming Hungarian, and, in his still-thick European accent, began talking about pictures – and asked to see David’s efforts, after which he offered his help.
Peto was in the perfect position to help a young photographer. He was a member of a small photographic agency called Reflex, which comprised Peter Tauber, the organizer and marketing manager, George Vargas, a fine news photographer, and Peto himself, who specialized in warm, lyrical images which were regularly published in The Observer, a respected British Sunday paper.
David Hurn was adopted by the agency. Its members gave him much advice, taught him the business side of photography and, gradually, passed on more and more evening and weekend assignments. Much of this work was photographing British Royalty, already a major moneymaker for the agency. “The idea that the Royal watch by paparazzi is a recent phenomenon is nonsense,” says David. “I was soon spending every weekend photographing the Royal doings, such as Prince Philip baring his chest while changing shirts at a polo match, or Princess Margaret with her beau, Captain Townsend, and so on. Reflex owned one of the first long telephoto lenses in the country and in those days the ability to shoot close-ups from a distance was unsuspected, so we got a lot of scoops. But
I was fed up. I didn’t feel like a photographer. I spent most of my time sitting on my butt waiting for the Royals to get off theirs”. David Hurn was 22 years of age and anxious for experience.
His close friend of the time was John Antrobus, whom he had met at Sandhurst. They quit the Army at the same time and decided to share an apartment in London. Antrobus wanted to be a writer. Both of them spent much of their leisure time in the coffee bars where talk of politics was rife – and much of the talk of the time was about the Hungarian Revolution.
Hungary had been Nazi Germany’s ally in World War II and was occupied by Russia at the cessation of hostilities in 1945. It soon turned communist (1949) and its puppet regime became increasingly oppressive, leading to a popular uprising in 1956 which was quickly and brutally suppressed by Russian troops.
Hurn and Antrobus (a photographer with very few published pictures and a writer with no published articles) decided to go to war. “It was a decision based more on ‘What a lark’ than on any serious involvement,” David remembers. The young men hitchhiked across Europe to Austria, sat in cafes near the Hungarian border, which they eventually crossed in the back of an ambulance, and hitchhiked yet again to Budapest. They were in, but unsure of what came next.
As in most civil disturbances, especially in large cities, the action was spasmodic and localized. It would have been relatively easy to spend all the time being in the wrong street or in the right street at the wrong time. Fortunately they met a seasoned correspondent, Eileen Travers of the London Daily Mail, who took the young photographer under her wing and briefed David on what was happening, where, and when. She also introduced him to correspondents from Life, the premier market for photojournalists at the time, which put David under contract on the spot – and arranged to get him out of Hungary at the opportune time.
His images were not only published in Life magazine but also in many other newspapers and periodicals, including Picture Post and The Observer, through distribution by Reflex. “There’s nothing like starting your photographic career at the top!,” says David. He is self-deprecating about his luck but the fact remains that he did make the effort to get to the situation and he did shoot pictures which were acceptable to the top picture journals of the world.
Unfortunately this was at a time when it was usual for periodicals to retain all copyright to published work and to retain ownership of the negatives. As a consequence, practically all David’s coverage of the Hungarian Revolution has been lost; he has been able to find only three prints from which he has made copy negatives. “The loss of my work is largely the reason why my memory is so hazy of this period in my life. I can vividly recall the situations surrounding those three images, but not much else. Contact sheets would have acted as powerful memory triggers, bringing back with full clarity the thoughts, feelings, as well as the sights, of those days.”
Back in London, flush with the success of the Hungarian pictures, David quit his job at Harrods and became a full-time photographer. Initially he continued to be nurtured by Reflex, which provided him with a small retainer plus a percentage of sales. But within a year he had severed connections with the agency and was freelancing for many newspapers and magazines, covering a wide variety of events mainly of topical newsworthy interest.
He was not alone, of course. He would keep meeting the same small group of enthusiastic young photographers at many of the events, and they became fast friends as well as rivals. “ I do not remember any animosity,” says David, “only cooperation which spurred growth in us all.” This group included Don McCullin, Ian Berry, and Philip Jones-Griffiths, who together with David Hurn would become members of Magnum Photos at about the same time. Never before in Magnum’s history had a single group from one city all become members more or less simultaneously.
But that was still in the future. In 1957 David decided to go to Russia.
In a newspaper article on life in Russia, the reporter seemed to hedge his account by stating that everyday existence could only be guessed at because no photographer had lived with a Russian family. That was all the incentive David Hurn needed. He made his way to Leningrad, reasoning that a university town should have some English speakers among the student population. He presumed correctly. Loitering around the university he asked: “Do you speak English?” until he received an affirmative and then invited himself back to the young man’s home. From there, he telephoned The Observer: “I’m a photographer living with a Russian family. Will you keep me here?” The answer was Yes, and David Hurn’s photojournalism career received another boost…
On his way out of Russia, David learned that Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, had died. He covered Sibelius’ funeral, again for The Observer.
Hungary, Russia, Finland- all important steppingstones in Hurn’s burgeoning career, but in many ways the 50s phenomenon of the coffee-bar as a meeting place of young, politicized intellectuals was even more influential. David remembers one place in particular, The Nucleus. “It was an extraordinary meeting place, loud with music from all over the world, but with a strong streak of impromptu jazz, raucous with passionate conversation, and reeking of spaghetti. It was run by Gary Winkler, who doubled as both drummer and the chef, whose spaghetti was not only delicious but incredibly cheap. I hung around with a group of friends which included the film director Ken Russell, who was then still a ballet dancer, the actress Shirley Ann Field, the philosopher Colin Wilson, the writer Stuart Holroyd, the film cameraman Walter Lassky, and John Antrobus who never wrote anything about Hungary, as far as I know, but was beginning to make a name for himself as a comedy script writer.”
Chains of circumstance spread out from these friends and led David into areas of photography which were as unexpected as they were invigorating.
Film and Fashion
For example, Ken Russell was making the transition from ballet dancer to still photographer to filmmaker. His still work presaged the outrageous theatricality of his later films. “He would take these absurd ideas,” remembers David, “and shoot bizarre pictures which would end up in a magazine like Illustrated. One story, for example, was about riding a penny-farthing bicycle up the Albert Memorial!”
One of Russell’s first films, made with a wind-up Bolex, was Amelia and the Angel, which opened the door to working with the BBC program, Monitor. One of the first television films was about David and his friends who shared an apartment in a house run by a strange old lady. The result was A House in Bayswater. Ken Russell was constantly on the lookout for fresh ideas. And David Hurn’s life seemed just bizarre enough! David had a strange cross-section of friends, lived in a weird house, had photographed war and a Royal bare chest and famous people and strippers and high fashion (as we will discover later) and seemed ready-made to be yet again a star in a Ken Russell movie. The biggest problem was who to get for the female lead, whom the script described as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Shooting was about to begin and no decision had been made. Claire Bloom, an already famous stage and screen actress, had agreed to take a role but the director and David both felt the lead should be given to an unknown. Who and where was she?
The question had not been answered when David had to go to Paris to photograph the collections for Jardin des Modes. On the last day David walked into the hotel lobby and saw “the most beautiful woman in the world” who was a fashion model, also working at the collections. David walked up to her, told her she was “the most…”, asked her to star in a movie, which starts shooting tomorrow, and “you must come back to London with me today!” She laughed.
Eventually David’s persistence convinced her at least to call her agent, who confirmed the arrangements, and Alita Naughton became the female star – and David’s wife in 1964. The Ken Russell movie, Watch the Birdie, was shown on British television but a third of it has since been lost. When Ken Russell made his first film for distribution, French Dressing, he insisted that Alita was given the lead. But this was the only movie that Alita would agree to make. David and Alita have one daughter, Sian (pronounced Sharn); they were divorced in 1971.
During the early 1960s a series of seemingly trivial events had later similarly profound repercussions in David’s life. One of them led to his short-lived career as a fashion photographer.
It began with a seemingly simple assignment to photograph the Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson. They became friends. Johnson was under contract to MGM which was asked to put up some money for the film King of Kings, already well into production in Spain. MGM agreed if one of their contract actors, i.e., Richard Johnson, was in the movie. In turn Johnson demanded that David Hurn was used as the still photographer.
It all worked out very well. David became fast friends with the director, Nicholas Ray, and with the publicist, Tom Carlisle, who asked David to stay in Spain for their next movie, El Cid, starring Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston. “I was happy to agree,” says David. “This was big money compared to the pittance I had been earning for newspaper pictures.” So he stayed in Spain for a year and developed a close working relationship with Heston, including a trip to Italy for a costume fitting – the images from which were widely published in fashion magazines, which paid even greater amounts of money. It seemed a good idea to explore this new field.
But fashion photographers need a portfolio, preferably using top talent, because David believes that a fashion photographer is only as good as his models. The trick would be to shoot pictures of top models without having to pay enormous fees. This is where Charlton Heston, perhaps unwittingly, could help. He had offered David the use of his New York apartment.
Once ensconced, David called the leading model agencies, dropped the hint that he was a guest of Charlton Heston and that he needed to make test shots of their best models in Heston’s apartment. No problem. With these images in hand David called on the legendary Alexander Liebermann, art director of Vogue, and received an assignment. Back in London, David called on Harper’s, told the art director that he had worked for Vogue in New York but preferred Harper’s. His fashion assignments began, not only for Harper’s but also for the most prestigious Jardin des Modes – which led to being in Paris for the collections and the chance meeting with Alita.
In turn, the fashion work led directly to lucrative advertising assignments, for corporations such as Aquascutum, Austin Reed, Morley and the like. In addition, the movie credits acquired in Spain led to many other assignments on motion pictures, especially those directed by the now (in)famous Ken Russell or those on which Tom Carlisle was the publicist – including all the early James Bond movies which starred Sean Connery – or those in which his friends were the stars, such as Jane Fonda. David’s pictures of Fonda in her revealing space outfit for Barbarella were published on the front covers of over 100 magazines worldwide.
All this frenetic activity of the early 1960s served to increase not only David’s fame, but also his fortune. Lucrative assignments in fashion and advertising led to a lavish lifestyle (including an Aston Martin) and served to finance personal projects. He kept the two aspects of his work widely separated – commercial photography in color, personal projects in black and white. The latter were always the more important. If it seems that there would not be enough time for both commercial and personal work it should be remembered that fashion/advertising is so highly paid that a relatively few days’ shooting can subsidize many days of personal freedom. David reckons that during this three- to four-year period he actually shot a maximum of 80 days in the fashion/advertising field.
The coffee-bar scene was also the genesis for many of the ideas with which David’s persona as a photographer will always be associated. Most of his commercial work was published without credit, so it was these black-and-white personal projects which were raising his stature among fellow photographers. Today, these projects would collectively be called essays on alternative lifestyles or subcultures. Early in this period David teamed up with the writer Irwin Shaw, and later with the journalist/author Nell Dunne, later to win critical fame for her novel Poor Cow.
Their first idea was to explore the world of models, who were just becoming known as personalities and celebrities in their own right, and this seemed a natural extension of David’s forays into fashion, as well as the fact that many of these models were habitués of the coffee-bar scene. During this project they heard about a model who specialized in taking off her clothes for a living, an unusual and rather radical notion in the early 1960s. This led into another essay on other women who stripped professionally, A Bit of Flesh.
One of the choreographers in a strip club was a homosexual and he became the focus for another essay on gays and transvestites. One of David’s most famous images of this period depicts two lesbians in the act of lovemaking. From some of these individuals he was introduced to the London drug scene, then in the infancy of what would become the ‘swinging sixties.’
Hurn states: “We were all very naive about the subculture in those days; it really was below the threshold of daily awareness. So my pictures were seen as rather radical and shocking, even eccentric.” It should also be noted that prior to the 60s there would not have been any market for this type of essay, except perhaps a single image reproduced in a newspaper. Now the color supplements, weekly magazines issued by the major newspapers, were beginning to appear, and they offered a whole new vehicle for the photographer working on sets of pictures on a specific theme.
By the mid-60s David Hurn had amassed an impressive body of work – in news and politics, fashion, advertising and, most significantly, in reportage essays on a variety of subculture topics.
For the past ten years David Hurn had worked incessantly for the world’s picture press – on assignment and, increasingly, on stories of his own instigation. Quickly the Hurn photo persona emerged: the quiet chronicler of the endearing, eccentric foibles of ordinary people caught up in the panoply of life’s pleasures, obsessions and terrors. When not specifically commissioned by one of the top picture periodicals, his favorite activity was to drive his Volkswagen van, equipped for sleeping, to a strange town, scan the local newspaper for current events, and invite himself to participate in whatever activity was going on – from flower shows to MG car owners’ ball, from pop concerts to classes in ballroom dancing, from darts contests in the local pub to open days at stately homes. This is still a major component of David Hurn’s photographic life and the source of many of his most memorable pictures.
All this frenetic activity of the early 60s served to establish his reputation as one of Britain’s premier photographers. In 1967, he was awarded the highest accolade for reportage work: he was invited to join the prestigious photographic cooperative, Magnum Photos Inc. Magnum had been formed in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodgers as an exclusive agency, owned and operated by the photographers themselves, so they could work on serious, humanitarian projects without loss of control to publishers. Membership would be by unanimous decision of all Magnum photographers. In a sense, Magnum was – and remains – an elitist club of the world’s top photojournalists. Certainly, David’s invitation to join was a major milestone in his photographic life.
How this occurred also fits the pattern of chance which David would admit has played such a major role in his career: “My whole life has been a succession of bizarre coincidences.” This one took place in Trafalgar Square where David was shooting pictures. He was noticed by another photographer, Sergio Lorraine, a Magnum photographer based in Chile. Lorraine could see that this youngster was shooting pictures correctly and invited him for coffee. “This idea fascinates me,” says David; “the idea that a few seconds of watching a photographer in action can tell you his/her status in the medium. And it’s true. If you watch a photographer of merit working an event he/she does not look like an amateur…” After Lorraine had seen David’s work, he suggested that the young photographer should link up with John Hillelson, a London picture agent who just happened to distribute Magnum’s images in Britain.
David is quick to give Hillelson a great deal of credit for his future career. “He was a major, major influence in my life. He acted as my advisor, editor and critic, but more crucial in many ways was that he expanded my horizons. Up to then I had been blinkered in my scope, publishing primarily in the British press. Hillelson opened up the world and my images began appearing in overseas journals such as Paris Match (France) and Stern (Germany). In addition through Hillelson I began to meet all the Magnum members. So I already was linked to Magnum long before I was asked to join, in that I knew the photographers personally and was already being represented by their agent.” David Hurn became an associate member of Magnum Photos in 1965 and a full member in 1967.
It is at this point in his career that I first met David Hurn. In early 1967, as the young editor of Creative Camera, I was anxious to meet such a renowned British photographer, and I asked if I could interview him. I had no idea, of course, that a seemingly casual request would change my life so markedly. As I listened to him answer my questions, it is no exaggeration to say that a sort of epiphany occurred. In his clarity of thinking, his direct approach to the medium, and his forceful utterances, I recognized a perfect template for my own, much hazier and unformed, opinions and attitudes. It was after the interview was concluded that I asked if I could come back and show him my own photographs – with the result that opened this introduction.
Yes, his quick dismissal of my images was disturbing and hurtful, but not as much as you might expect. I think that deep down, I knew what he said was true: I would not make a successful photojournalist. Subsequently we talked about what my role in the medium could and should be, and whatever I did thereafter I felt David’s presence and guidance within me. He was my silent partner in editorial decision-making, first at Creative Camera and then at Album, in organizing lectures for young photographers, in preparing exhibitions, in writing articles for journals other than my own, in hustling to gain acceptance for photography within the tradition-bound arts establishment.
My visits to his Porchester Court apartment were growing in frequency – eventually I moved in, editing Album from his own office. These were heady times. David Hurn’s home was the charged space where photographers from all over the world gathered to discuss images and ideas over umpteen cups of tea.
Frequent visitors were Patrick Ward, Leonard Freed, Don McCullin, Erich Hartmann, Charles Harbutt, Elliott Erwitt, Ian Berry, and then Josef Koudelka who also found a home with David on his escape from Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion. Many are the times when I had to step over his sleeping body to reach my desk. I remember those days with gratitude and fondness, and could write endlessly about these encounters and conversations. But the danger of digression must be avoided, as this introduction is about David himself.
By 1972 major changes, for both of us, were in the air. Album had folded and I decided to move to the University of New Mexico to study with Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke, both of whom I knew well and respected from their previous visits to England. David’s life was also undergoing a catharsis. He was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his commercial career and knew that he needed to jolt his personal work back on track, and find a fresh way to make meaningful contributions to Britain’s growing awareness of the medium.
His decision was to move back to Wales for one year, live simply and cheaply out of his camper and shoot pictures of Wales and the Welsh for a book project. He intended to return to London; he merely sublet his apartment, keeping one room for occasional visits.
Again, chance was to veer him in a different direction. During his Welsh rambles he met an administrator of a college and the conversation turned towards the ideal course for a young photographer. David was intrigued. He spent more and more time planning this fictional (or so he supposed) ideal program, even to the extent of designing the perfect darkrooms. The aspect of this mental exercise which most captivated him, however, was: What is it that all the top professionals have in common? And can this be taught? “I saw a pattern in how all the most respected photographers approached their work,” says David, “and I believed that these basic principles could be passed on to aspiring youngsters. Although this seemed logical and self-evident to me, I later learned that the whole course was unique.” Once Gwent College saw David’s proposal he was asked to implement it. He agreed -for two years at the most. He was instigator and director of the program for 15 years.
The School of Documentary Photography, located within Gwent College of Higher Education at Newport in South Wales, was a major success, becoming the most respected course of its kind in the world. David Hurn’s talent for organization, clarity of thinking and seeing, and professionalism were now channeled to his students, many of whom have become major figures in the medium.
Meanwhile he was also active in the burgeoning support for photography by The Arts Council of Great Britain, serving on its photography committee and arts panels for many years. He says: “The Arts Council, through the leadership of its director, Barry Lane, raised the profile of fine photography in Britain and gave much encouragement to young photographers, but we also made mistakes. In my opinion it was a mistake to finance photo-galleries – it looked as if photography could not compete in the existing gallery world and that it was therefore necessary to create our own ghetto galleries.”.
David Hurn was now helping to shape a national attitude towards photography through those establishment bodies, which had spurned the medium only a few years earlier.
His photographs were also achieving recognition by institutions and philanthropic industries and he became the recipient of many awards, including the Welsh Arts Council (1971); Kodak Bursary (1975); the UK/US Bicentennial Fellowship (1979-80), which David spent with me in Arizona; Imperial War Museum Arts Award (1987-88); and many others, including his first monograph: David Hurn: Photographs 1956-1976, published by The Arts Council of Great Britain, with an introduction by Sir Tom Hopkinson, the legendary editor of Picture Post during its glory years in the 40s.
From 1972 to 1990, David Hurn was one of the sturdiest pillars of the British photographic edifice. He was a full-time college administrator/teacher, an advisor to various councils and committees, a frequent guest lecturer and conductor of workshops, and he still managed some way, some how, to snatch time to continue his own photography, and prepare exhibitions of personal work. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to juggle all these balls and sooner or later some of them had to be dropped.
Back to Photography
In 1990 David made a decision. Here’s a quotation from a letter he sent to me at the time (22 March 1990):
Well my world is about to make the big change. The path to malnutrition. I have decided to give up full-time teaching.
The decision is more from the heart than the head. When I add up possible income and match it against that that I get now, the equation never balances. The problem is that I have no desire to be shot at, no desire to sit at the end of a car phone hoping to do three running jobs a day, no desire to photograph the prime minister’s cats, in fact no desire to do what I don’t want to do.
However, one day I was speculating on how I would like to look back on my life and I decided I wanted to feel that I was a photographer rather than a teacher. As simple as that.
It might be that many others will always remember me as a teacher and that won’t worry me, I am sure that I will become more and more proud of the achievements of the course as time passes. We have had a mass of really good students and I am sure I will be constantly reminded of them. Teaching was fun, worthwhile and even sometimes thought provoking, however, it has not really changed my views on anything. Photography is still, to me, mum “snapping” the baby and showing the result to grandma…
At the time of writing (January 1995) it has been five years since David Hurn severed all links with a regular commitment. He may be poorer financially but he is richer in time. Time to do what he wants to do, and what he does best: take pictures.
“When I began teaching it seemed as though I would have plenty of time for my own work, but as the course became more and more successful so the administrative chores became increasingly time-consuming. Also, the ethos of education was changing. At first I had a free hand to apply what worked; later I spent most of my time arguing with administrators who knew nothing about the course or the field. Then came the moment when I suddenly realized that I had been a teacher as long as I had been a photographer, so thereafter if someone asked what I did I would have to reply ’I’m a teacher’ not ‘I’m a photographer’. That frightened me. I knew I had stayed too long!”
This fact was emphasized when David called on the picture editors with new story ideas: “Perhaps I thought the photo-world would shout ‘Whoopee! David Hurn is back!’ but the reality was that I was talking to 25-year-olds who had never heard of Magnum, let alone David Hurn. And when I proposed major essays they laughed in my face and told me they never commissioned stories of more than two or three images, maximum. Times had changed and I was a dinosaur. Actually this cold reception was good for me. I had to rethink my whole approach and I decided to concentrate on major essays of my own choosing, without consideration of the end result.”
His salable work would come ‘out the side’ of these major projects. For example while shooting the two-year project on sculpture he was aware that people were eating their lunches in a variety of places – and this led to a ‘Lunchbreak’ set of pictures for a colour supplement which ran across 13 pages plus the front cover and, says David, “helped pay the bills for my own work.”
In recent years he has completed, continued and begun a multitude of personal projects including a rephotographic survey of Eugene Atget’s images of sculpture at Versailles; a series which he calls Documentary Pictures of Romantic Places and Romantic Pictures of Documentary Places; a large project which attempts to answer the question ‘What is sculpture?’; and people posing for other people’s cameras. What is intriguing about these projects is that they examine some of the most fundamental problems of the medium itself rather than satisfy a glib need to know what something or someone looks like.
But the point I want to make here is that David Hurn has never curbed his curiosity – not only about the human condition but also about photography itself. He is still prodding, poking the medium in his desire to tease it into giving up its reluctant secrets. This is never-ending. For example, a new series of images of the Welsh landscape demanded, thought David, a contemplative large-format approach.
So he sought out Mark Klett, a landscape photographer whom he much admires, flew 6,000 miles (from Wales to Arizona) and followed him around for days, watching his every move, determined to master a new method of working by learning from a superlative craftsman and artist.
This obsession to get it right, to do it as well as it can be done or not at all, is typical of David Hurn’s approach to everything, life as well as art.
This brief narrative account of David Hurn’s career serves the purpose, hopefully, of establishing his photographic credentials as a guide to young photographers. As David would say to others: “Learn from the best; the second-raters have nothing to offer.” If this book was merely about the craft of photography, then I would stop this introduction right here. But it is not. For David, photography is inextricably linked with life; the photographer is not invisibly behind the camera but projecting a life-attitude through the lens to create an interference pattern with the image. Who he is, what he believes, not only becomes important to know intellectually, but also becomes revealed emotionally and visibly through a body of work.
He has written: “It is the purpose of life that each of us strives to become actually what he or she is potentially. Each photographer, then, should be obsessed with stretching towards that goal through an understanding of others and the world we inhabit. When that happens, the results, like photographs, are really the expressions of the life of the maker.”
So it is relevant to ask: Who is David Hurn, the person who permeates the title ‘photographer?’
Acknowledging that mere words are laughingly inadequate to convey the complexities of a personality, I will nevertheless attempt a verbal snapshot of the person who is your guide…
Let us say you are at an event which David Hurn is photographing: the chances are that you would not notice him. He tends, chameleon-like, to blend in with whatever type of person is present, whether high-society wedding guest or working-class picnicker. He is not posing, pushing people around, creating a pocket of activity; he is discreet, one of everyone, a silent insider. But someone nudges you and says: that’s David Hurn, the photographer. So you introduce yourself, and find that he is immediately effusive, perhaps overly so, with the ready smile and enthusiasm of the congenitally shy. That might surprise you, but it is true. For all his world and worldly experiences David Hurn is a shy person, like many photographers of people. This seeming weakness he has turned into a strength. He likes people and through the camera can both connect with them and remain hidden behind the instrument.
Encouraged by his initial warmth you find him an easy person to talk to, because he is genuinely interested in what you have to say, until you wonder if you are distracting him, preventing him from shooting pictures. Unlike most photographers, however, David enjoys company while photographing, as if the conversation is an additional shield to his activities – because, although you do not know it, he has never been distracted for one moment from potential images. Suddenly you find yourself talking to air; David has seen a picture and left you in mid-sentence.
There’s a single-mindedness about David that can be intimidating to those who have no obsession of their own.
In our fictional first encounter, you ask David if he would join you for a pub lunch after the event, and he is happy to agree. Then you will notice several small but telling details: he is punctual, he doesn’t drink alcohol (and never has), he doesn’t smoke (and never has), and he has little regard for what’s on the menu. David will eat almost anything and enjoy whatever is available; although he is partial to fine cuisine, some of our best mealtimes together have been greasy fish and chips eaten off the packaging.
After the meal you finally start probing the deeper aspects of his personality (probably over endless, endless cups of tea) and quickly find the affable, humorous, empathic outer surface hides an inner core of adamantine conviction. Ask his opinion on anything – politics, religion, sex – and you will receive a brutally direct response.
Obviously he has thought, carefully and deeply, about these issues and is now sure of his foundations. You now feel a clash between his personable warmth and chilly puritanism. This is intimidating for those who are not inner directed, who have not continually assessed their behavior and attitudes and reconciled their individuality with the possible disapprovals of others. David will assert his principles, as forcefully and as clearly as possible, in the face of disagreement. For the majority, people of principle are frightening.
David Hurn’s principles are rooted in an old-fashioned – or at least unfashionable – belief in the goodness and oneness of the human race, which in this era of casual callousness places him to the far left of the political center, but right in the middle of the working people among whom he most enjoys to interact and photograph.
David Hurn can be rigid, uncompromising, infuriatingly opinionated, intense, single- mindedly obsessive and, at the same time, unfailingly generous, full of warmth and laughter, and a lover of life in all its facets.
It is no surprise that his photographs reflect his life attitude: persistence, hard work, stripped-to-the-bone simplicity with a smile at the edges and an enchantment with ordinary, daily lives.
And it is no surprise that his admonitions to young photographers carry the same message: think clearly, act sensibly, commit yourself to caring and work hard in order to discover joy. Then give the images back to the world from which they were taken. He has written:
“In previous ages the word ‘art’ was used to cover all forms of human skill. The Greeks believed that these skills were given by the gods to man for the purpose of improving the condition of life. In a real sense, photography has fulfilled the Greek ideal of art; it should not only improve the photographer, but also improve the world.”
This text was first published in 1997.
[David and Bill Jay jointly authored a book, On Being a Photographer, which was first published in 1997, and is now published and distributed by LensWork Publishing. It is a dialogue, but the dominant voice is the photographer’s. It includes a personal essay on David Hurn’s career and attitudes, providing a context for the conversation. This is a slightly edited version by Jay of that introduction.]
© The Estate of Bill Jay
You can find out more about Bill Jay and view our film documenting his life here www.donotbendfilm.com
I got rejected from the Documentary Photography course at Gwent as well; no harm done. Funnily enough I mentioned Bill Jay in the interview as I’d read an article written by Jay, He’d been teaching in the states and was giving his thoughts about photography students; it was really funny.