In May 2009 David Hurn was the victim of a hit-and-run. Sent spinning to the ground by an SUV that hit his camera bag as he crossed Beaufort Street in Chepstow, Hurn was left with torn muscles and a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg.
Nine months later the bruises have gone and one of Britain’s most distinguished photographers is resigned to the fact that at the age of 74 his Achilles may never heal completely.
After recounting the incident as he loads an espresso machine in his six-hundred year old cottage in Wales, David adds that a witness was so excited by the collision that they forgot to note the registration number of the vehicle.
The account is typical Hurn: facts that conclude with a considered, sometimes critical observation. In this instance he has prompted us to examine how the emotional response of a witness meant they failed to do what would have been most useful.
ATHLETE TO OFFICER CADET
Twice within the last ten years we have come close to losing one of the most interesting minds in British photography.
This is the clear-minded thinker whose documentary photographs are worth revisiting and who’s legend prevailed over everything at the course he created at Newport College, and who talked and can still talk, if we only stop to listen, with perception about a profession which has undergone such radical change since he discovered photography while training to be an army officer five and a half decades ago.
In 2001 David was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. The diagnosis was late and the statistics were stacking up against him. That he survived major surgery to make a full recovery is testament to the fitness of a former sportsman who has never smoked or drunk.
Born in England in 1934 and educated in Wales – the land of his fathers – David Hurn started on several career paths before settling on documentary photography. Hurn’s early life pointed to sport and to the army.
A file of old photographs, some sepia coloured and slightly faded, chronicle his transition from uniformed schoolboy to archetypical 1950s all-round sportsman. Anyone for cricket? Tennis perhaps?
It was Hurn’s abilities on the running track and the rugby field in particular that led to officer training at the Sandhurst Military Academy and the opportunity of following in the footsteps of his father, who during World War II had reached the rank of major in Special Operations.
David, however, felt stifled by the military establishment. To escape he joined the Sandhurst Camera Club which had a darkroom near town, away from the base.
To his surprise the officer cadet found that photography provided more than a passport out of the airless academy, because as soon as he held a camera to his eye Hurn grasped how effective photography was at saying something different to what people in authority wanted him to believe.
Hurn realised that the Cold War propaganda he was being taught at Sandhurst did not correspond to images appearing in Picture Post, which over a three-week period from January 29th 1955, had published (as had Life, Stern, and Paris Match) a photo-reportage by one of the first western photographers to gain access to Soviet Russia since the end of the Second World War.
The images did not show a land of crazed Bolsheviks bent on world domination, but people who lived and loved and cared, much as people lived and loved and cared the world over.
The photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Hurn ditched his military career and moved to London where he got a job selling shirts in Harrods. He then joined the Reflex photo agency where he was employed as an assistant to photographers Michael Peto and George Vargas.
Reflex possessed one of the few long telephoto lenses in Britain at the time, and the agency secured a regular income from shooting and distributing candid photographs of the royal family. A long-lens shot of Prince Philip changing his shirt at a polo match was one of Hurn’s early scoops.
When David grew bored of life as a paparazzi he tried photojournalism. Not that he took the idea too seriously to begin with, for when the autumn of 1956 found him hitchhiking across Europe to cover the Hungarian Uprising with writer and fellow Sandhurst dropout John Antrobus, it was an enterprise undertaken as a bit of a lark.
A lark it may have been, but as so often happens in photography the gamble that David took changed his career.
The death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 raised hopes among the people of Eastern Europe whose lands had come under Soviet Russian control towards the end of the Second World War. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced the crimes of his predecessor three years later (news leaked to the western press by the Poles) resentment boiled onto the streets of Poland and Hungary.
In Hungary on October 23rd 1956, workers, students and sections of the Hungarian army rose in bloody revolt against their hard-line communist leaders. The puppet government in Budapest was toppled and replaced by moderates who promised free elections and the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. From the sidelines the Red Army watched and waited for orders from Moscow.
Hurn and Antrobus crossed the Iron Curtain in the back of an ambulance and reached the Hungarian capital where David had the good fortune of meeting veteran Daily Mail correspondent Eileen Travers. Travers briefed the young photographer on what was happening in the city.
Travers also introduced Hurn to journalists working for Life magazine. Life put Hurn under contract, and through the Reflex agency David’s pictures of the uprising made it to the pages not only of Life, but of Picture Post, The Observer newspaper and a number of other publications.
Life ensured Hurn got out of Hungary before Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of Budapest on November 4th to extinguish the aspirations of a generation of Hungarians, and the pipe-dreams of the intellectual left in Britain and much of Europe.
Cartier-Bresson’s images of Russia had shown the humanity of the Russian people. Within two years of Bresson’s visit, the Soviet leaders had shown that common humanity and idealism had little to do with the realities of superpower politics and military might.
UNDRESSED TO SAVE THE UNIVERSE
Having been published in Life magazine, David Hurn had the confidence to leave Reflex and go freelance. The decision brought him into friendly competition with the generation of great British photojournalists that included Don McCullin, Ian Berry and Philip Jones Griffiths.
At the time David led something of a bohemian lifestyle, hanging out with writer Colin Wilson, and with Ken Russell who having started as a ballet dancer, was by the late 1950s taking his theatricality into photography and into programme making for the BBC. At the BBC Russell directed short films for Monitor, the corporation’s fondly remembered arts programme (which ran from 1958 to 1965).
David Hurn appears in two of Ken Russell’s early productions.
Hurn plays himself in Watch the Birdie (1963) opposite the model and actress Alita Naughton whom he was to marry in 1964. Hurn also appears in A House in Bayswater (1960), a 28 minute black and white film about the inhabitants of a five-story house that stands on a site earmarked for redevelopment into a bland office block, as was much of urban Britain at the time.
As the chains of tradition began to loosen during the swinging 60s David embarked on a series of photo shoots documenting British subcultures. Radical, even shocking for a British readership at the time, some of his black and white essays on the London gay community, strippers and drug addicts found a ready market in the new colour supplements.
Hurn has calculated that in the 1960s The Sunday Times, Telegraph and Observer colour supplements and a number of other magazines had between them a total of about a hundred pages of editorial space available each week for a relatively small number of top photojournalists.
Parallel to his editorial work David started shooting stills for the film industry. Working on productions like El Cid (1961), A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the early Bond movies generated a better income than photojournalism, and helped David cultivate a number of high-profile friends and contacts.
In 1967 Dino de Laurentiis invited Hurn to shoot the stills for Barbarella (1968), the Roger Vadim movie remembered less for its script than for its title sequence in which Jane Fonda playing ‘the most beautiful creature of the future,’ stripped weightlessly before cinema audiences in anamorphic widescreen, and four decades later can do so again for the benefit of a generation of curious internet users if they click here.
David’s photographs of Fonda dressed, and undressed to save the universe made the cover of a hundred magazines around the world.
Newsweek achieved its greatest ever news-stand sales, and its most cancellations from subscribers, when the weekly published one of his images of a naked Fonda on the cover of its November 13th 1967 issue under the headline Anything Goes: The Permissive Society.
In fact Hurn was shooting editorial, film stills, glamour and fashion at the time. His film industry contacts having led to a fashion shoot for Alexander Lieberman at Vogue in New York, and then a spell working for Le Jardin des Modes and for British Vogue’s London rival Harper’s Bazaar. In turn, assignments from the glossy fashion magazines led to some lucrative advertising work.
David Hurn had mastered the game. He mixed with film stars, had a beautiful wife and drove an Aston Martin, but by the early 70s he had traded in the Aston, got divorced, and was heading off into the wilds of Wales in a Volkswagen camper van.
Not that this was a change of direction so much as a greater commitment to the kind of photography he had been drawn to since a chance encounter in London in 1960 had set him on the path to becoming a documentary photographer, as opposed to the creator of images that fed the commercial markets of newspapers, magazines and advertising.
FINDING A VOCATION
It wouldn’t happen in London today without interruption from a heritage warden or a police officer, but one day in 1960 David Hurn was taking photographs in Trafalgar Square when another photographer came up and introduced himself. It was Sergio Larrain of Magnum.
“Sergio had this theory that he could tell good photographers by watching them work,” says Hurn over one of a succession of black coffees drunk amid the clutter of his living room in his cottage in Wales.
David admits that at the time he had neither heard of the Chilean photographer nor of Magnum.
When Hurn showed Larrain his work, Larrain told the young photographer that although he didn’t shoot news with the intensity and ability of a McCullin, a Berry or a Griffiths, he did posses a talent for more quietly observed, humanistic photography.
“That freed me up,” says Hurn. “So I found a niche for myself which was much more personal, and much more involved.”
Sergio Larrain also suggested that David should be represented by John Hillelson, then the Magnum agent in London. David credits Hillelson for expanding his horizons and promoting his work among European publications. Through Hillelson, David met other Magnum photographers.
And it was John Hillelson who helped David get the tail-end of a lease for a ground-floor flat that Hillelson’s aunt and uncle had lived in from 1934 until their deaths thirty years later. John and his wife Judith lived in the same building, on the second floor.
For a decade and a half from 1964 David Hurn rented the ground-floor apartment at 4 Porchester Court, Porchester Gardens in Bayswater. The flat consisted of three large and three normal sized rooms, and cost David about £12 a week.
Patrick Ward remembers Porchester Court in the 1960s and recalls sitting on the floor in the front room looking at prints and magazines with fellow photographers, the lovely Alita bringing them bowls of hot soup. Before long facilities extended from meeting place to photographers’ doss house.
“Leonard Freed, Josef Koudelka, Elliott Erwitt all stayed there quite a lot,” says David reading from a list he had compiled the previous evening.
“Philip Jones Griffiths obviously, Bill Jay, Ian Berry, Don McCullin, Patrick Ward. Homer Sykes was there. John Bulmer, Bruce Davidson, Brian Brake, Sergio Larrain, Marc Riboud, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, Eve Arnold, Bruno Barbey, René Burri …”
He pauses, “Then of course there were other people than photographers who came to the flat, like Mark Boxer.”
Between 1957 and 1961 Mark Boxer had introduced a new standard of editorial photography to the UK through the glossy pages of society magazine Queen, which he art-directed under the editorship of Beatrix Miller, and proprietorship of Jocelyn Stevens (the nephew of Picture Post publisher Edward Hulton who also financed the pirate radio station Radio Caroline).
Famously Cartier-Bresson’s China was published in three successive issues of Queen between January 6th and February 3rd 1959.
In 1962 Boxer was appointed founding editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, the first of the British colour supplements, where he established the early supplement style designed to attract readers and advertisers alike with bold use of the latest photojournalism.
Mark Boxer brought over big name photographers from America like Bruce Davidson and Earnst Hass. Michael Rand at The Sunday Times and Peter Crookston, editor of Nova later assistant editor at The Sunday Times, brought over Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. All visited or stayed at Porchester Court.
In Hurn’s flat picture editors and photographers met, made contacts, and were at the heart of the conversation about what was happening in photography.
GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS AND VIETNAM INC.
In the hall at 4 Porchester Court hung a small gallery of framed prints, among them Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, and Elliott Erwitt’s Woman and melons, Managua. The first door on the right led to the front room which was David Hurn’s office and looked out on to the street. Behind that was the kitchen. At the back of the building was the living room where David had his books and more framed photographs.
To the left of the hall was David Hurn’s bedroom. The largest room of the apartment, the bedroom was painted black and doubled as a photographic studio. The studio encouraged a regular flow of models on ‘go-sees.’
Homer Sykes recalls beguiling twins who regularly hung out at Porchester Court, and Patrick Ward, asked if he remembers meeting Richard Avedon at the flat, says that he wouldn’t have noticed the American as he, Patrick, was probably gazing into some beautiful, deep blue eyes at the time.
Even when David was working abroad someone would open the front door and let the models in, and they would clean up the kitchen. “It was a very pleasant life,” admits Hurn. “Although it sounds very chauvinistic today.”
Visits from Jane Fonda, Claire Bloom, Jean Shrimpton, and Sandra Paul – “a delightful, bright girl,” brought glamour and mystique to the Bayswater flat. Rod Steiger, the Oscar winning actor then at the height of his fame, loved winding up the models by pretending to be the butler. The thespian Richard Johnson would roll up in his blacked-out Mini Cooper.
And there was the evening, recalled by John Hillelson, when David hid Ringo Starr in Hillelson’s second-floor apartment and of Ringo and John drinking whisky and coke and all of them playing battleships while the paparazzi waited in the street below.
Amid the coming and going Philip Jones Griffiths settled in as one of the earliest of the permanent residents. Philip occupied one of the smaller rooms at the back of the flat, and converted another into a darkroom.
It was from Porchester Court that Griffiths departed for Central Africa and for South East Asia, and where on his return, some of the first sequences of images used in Vietnam Inc. were laid out print-by-print in the front room.
A DEAR, DEAR FRIEND
When Life magazine got David Hurn out of Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, Hurn left behind a country facing a brutal clampdown by the Soviet Union.
Less than twelve years later the Soviets responded with almost equal brutality to the Prague Spring. Initiated by the communist leader of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, The Prague Spring was a programme of peaceful democratic reform that had begun to introduce what Dubček described as ‘Socialism with a human face.’
On the morning of August 21st 1968 the Soviet news agency, Tass, reported that armies of the Warsaw Pact had entered Czechoslovakia following a request for assistance by the Czechoslovak communist party to fight what they described as counter-revolutionary forces.
During the early hours of the occupation resistance in Prague centered round Wenceslas Square and the city’s radio station where young men constructed barricades and threw homemade missiles at Soviet tanks and ammunition trucks. The BBC described how four or more people were killed when Soviet troops responded with machine gun and artillery fire. That night Prague’s new masters imposed a curfew and threatened to shoot on sight anyone caught breaking it.
Just one day back from photographing gypsies in Romania the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka roamed the city streets taking photographs on an old Exakta camera loaded with cinematic film.
Apparently Koudelka had no film cassettes, and as he finished one strip of film he returned home to replace it with another strip in darkness before venturing onto the streets once more.
Koudelka has stated that the truly creative periods are when you live with intensity. Few experiences could be more intense than a military invasion of your homeland. What Koudelka created as Prague fell in August 1968 is now recognised as one of the most powerful documents of twentieth century photography.
Koudelka’s film was smuggled out of Czechslovakia and through Magnum his Prague pictures received global distribution. First to print was The Sunday Times magazine in London in 1969.
Even though the images were published anonymously Koudelka knew that they would come on to the radar of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and it would be only a matter of time before the photographer was identified.
Realising he had to leave Czechslovakia for good, Koudelka approached Magnum who secured him an exit-visa having claimed they had awarded Koudelka a grant to photograph the gypsies of Europe. Once out of the country the Czech did not return home.
Now stateless Koudelka needed somewhere to live. Elliott Erwitt phoned David Hurn and asked if Koudelka could stay at his flat and use the darkroom to process his film.
David remembers the daytime arrival of Erwitt and Koudelka. Koudelka standing on the doorstep of Porchester Court in his wire-rimmed glasses, his only other possessions the clothes he stood up in, a sleeping bag, and his undeveloped film.
Hurn thought he’d bring half a dozen rolls of film, but Koudelka had 800 unprocessed rolls.
“And so you begin to think how long that takes in the darkroom at four rolls a time,” says Hurn tailing off a little. “And Josef just stayed eight or ten years, who knows. He’s a dear, dear, dear friend, and became like a brother to me.”
Those 800 rolls contained images which would fill the pages of the book Gypsies (1975), and line the walls of the Hayward Gallery in 1984. Just like Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc., Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies was first laid out in David Hurn’s front room at Porchester Court.
HURN GETS INTO MAGNUM, (McCULLIN RESIGNS)
At 9:15 on the morning of Friday October 21st 1966 a colliery spoil heap slipped down a mountainside towards the Welsh mining village of Aberfan. Tip workers on the mountain tried to alert the villagers below. There wasn’t time.
Within seconds forty-thousand cubic meters of waterlogged coal slurry crashed into the village engulfing a terrace of houses, a farm and part of the village school killing 144 people, 116 of them children.
David Hurn was in Bristol when he heard the news. He was with Ian Berry. The two photographers dropped what they were doing and drove in David’s Mini across (almost certainly) the newly opened Seven Bridge to Aberfan where between them they produced an eerie set of images of the rescue operation, and of the remnants of the deadly spoil heap still looming above the village.
The idea that Hurn and Berry upped and shot the disaster on spec moved Cartier-Bresson to circulate a letter within Magnum praising the enterprise of the young photographers.
Ian Berry was already an associate, David Hurn had become an associate in 1965 shortly after working alongside some of the Magnum big names in London covering the funeral of Winston Churchill. Cartier-Bresson’s letter the following year advanced the careers of both photographers.
In 1967 David Hurn and Ian Berry became full members of the cooperative. Philip Jones Griffiths in 1966, and Don McCullin in 1967, became associate members. It was, and remains, the biggest influx of photographers into Magnum from a single city in the history of the agency.
McCullin, however, walked out after two years. Hurn believes this to be Magnum’s greatest loss, photographically – greater even than the loss of Sebastião Salgado, or Charles Harbutt, “Who has the kind of group brain that Magnum needs.”
BILL JAY – THE RADICAL ADVOCATE
It was in 1967 that Bill Jay, the editor and great advocate of photography, followed up on an interview with David Hurn by showing him a box of lovingly produced prints. Hurn’s blunt response that Jay’s efforts were “boring” was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship.
In 1967 Bill Jay had taken over the editorship of the hobbyist magazine Camera Owner and was in the process of transforming it into the crusading Creative Camera through which, with encouragement from Tony Ray Jones and John Benton-Harris, Jay proceeded to hustle the traditional arts establishment in Britain into the grudging acceptance of photography as something worth hanging on art gallery walls.
After two years Bill Jay was fired from Creative Camera over the issue of editorial control. Within months he had set up the courageous, short lived, Album magazine, a venture made possible by an investment of £4,000 from Tristram Powell, TV director son of novelist Anthony Powell.
Every issue of Album credits Tristram Powell as consulting editor, David Hurn is credited as a consulting editor in the magazine’s twelfth and final issue, published in 1971. The driving force and sole member of staff though, was Bill Jay.
Initially the Album office was in the basement at 70 Princedale Road, which was home to the counter-culture magazines Oz and Time Out (much of Blow-Up (1966) was shot just round the corner at 39 Princes Place, in the studio of fashion photographer John Cowan).
Album magazine did not carry advertising, and despite critical success the hoped-for revenue from subscriptions did not materialise. When Jay no longer had the resources to pay the rent at Princedale Road, David Hurn invited his friend to move the magazine into the front room at Porchester Court.
Layouts for Album were carried out on a sheet of plywood covering the pocket-billiard table. If the itinerant Koudelka, who by choice slept on the floor, was in town he might have to be stepped over to reach the Album desk.
It seems that the hubbub of an editorial office in his front room was welcomed by David, and the conversations among photographers looking at prints over endless cups of tea were among of the happiest times of Bill Jay’s life.
Jay was twice declared bankrupt. There were times when he suffered from fainting attacks and headaches from lack of food.
Usually Jay was saved from starvation by David or Patrick Ward buying him a meal at the Bistingo Bistro, a small restaurant on Queensway two minutes walk from Porchester Court. Ward says it was the least they could do for an editor publishing their best personal work.
The Bistingo became such a regular haunt for the Porchester Court community that the bistro had a large table permanently set aside for photographers. Any evening you might get Richard Avedon or Don McCullin or Burk Uzzle with Bill Jay and a couple of students sitting round the table, having a meal together.
There was less categorisation separating photographers of different disciplines in the 60s, says Hurn. Conversations were based on respect for people who did things well, and an interest in what they were working on.
JAY LEAVES BRITAIN
As the 1960s were drawing to a close Bill Jay began organising photography lectures at Porchester Court. He had founded and run the photo studies centre at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and coordinated meetings for young photographers at the Royal Photographic Society.
But the ICA threw Jay out for dominating the place with photography, and the RPS membership were horrified at the success of Jay’s Album Evenings, ‘regular evening meetings for young photographers, where they can meet fine workers … and chat with fellow enthusiasts in the plush but informal rooms of the Royal Photographic Society.’
So lectures were sometimes held in David’s flat, where they could cram 70 people into the living room. “Like the black hole of Calcutta,” says Hurn.
One lecture David recalls was by Frank Van Deren Coke, the surrealist photographer who advocated the spirited contemplation of individual photographs and whose photographic studies course at the University of New Mexico – in its rejection of the East coast documentary convention – became one of the leading photographic courses in the world.
Another speaker at Porchester Court was Paul Strand, then at the height of his fame.
Around the time of the collapse of Album magazine, Bill Jay was turned down for a post at the National Portrait Gallery. Seemingly he had no great prospects in the UK.
Deliverance came when Van Deren Coke invited Jay to take a place on his photographic studies course in New Mexico; the idea being Jay could acquire the formal qualifications necessary to teach in the United States.
On attaining an MA in the history of photography, Jay moved directly to the Arizona State University where he was to stay for 25 years, founding the university’s own photographic studies course and becoming professor of art history.
“Bill was this brilliant, brilliant person,” says Hurn. “Typical of this country we really drove him out.”
THE END OF AN ERA
With the 1970s came the beginning of the long slow demise of the editorial market for photographers. In the US Look closed in 1971, Life magazine in 1972, and led by the need for more pages of advertising, the British colour supplements were carrying less and less multi-page journalistic stories in favour of a growing coverage of personalities, cooking and tourist destinations.
When David Hurn moved to Wales he sublet Porchester Court to Christopher Angeloglou who, following the closure of Life’s syndication office in Paris where he had been Director, needed a base in London while he worked as John Anstey’s deputy at The Telegraph Magazine. Hurn retained one room to sleep in when he was in town.
Chris Angeloglou remembers the coming and going of Josef Koudelka, and David’s room piled high with books and prints and darkroom kit.
Eventually the landlords began trying to reclaim the whole property from the tenants. Hurn has a vague memory that the flat above may have been flooded and his flat destroyed.
BRITAIN WAKES UP TO PHOTOGRAPHIC GALLERIES
“To be a photographer in a world which changes perpetually we must be comfortable with change and be able to adapt our views when confronted with new truths,” says David Hurn in the indispensable paperback for the thinking photographer On Being a Photographer, which he produced in collaboration with Bill Jay in 1997.
There had been an extraordinary energy in photography in the 1960s as new ideas circulated the United States, Europe and Japan.
In Britain the editorial boom kept the medium buoyant, if somewhat uninspired outside of what The Times of November 5th, 1976 described as ‘The Great British Photographic Revival,’ which was credited in no small part to Bill Jay and to David Hurn.
It is extraordinary to discover that the Cartier-Bresson show at the V&A in 1969 was the first headline photographic exhibition ever held by a major British art gallery.
The Louvre, no less, had put on two Cartier-Bresson retrospectives (1954 and 1966) and the MoMA, New York had exhibited his work as far back as 1946 (MoMA has returned to Cartier-Bresson in 2010 with the ‘majestic’ Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century until June 28th).
Britain woke up to the idea of photographic galleries in 1970 with the opening of the Do Not Bend and Creative Camera Galleries in London, followed in 1972 by the Half Moon Gallery again in London, and by the Impressions Gallery in York.
However, although 1975 brought the Fox Talbot Museum to Lacock and Bill Brandt’s The Land exhibition to the V&A in London, the Arts Council sponsored Photographs by Paul Strand was consigned to the National Portrait Gallery’s neglected annex at 15 Carlton House Terrace in 1976, when no other gallery could be found to hang the master photographer’s work anywhere in London.
And let’s not forget that The Photographers’ Gallery, Britain’s first publicly funded space dedicated to photography, and the most significant photo gallery opening of the period, only made it kicking and screaming into the cold light of day in 1971 through the single-minded determination of Sue Davies, a former colleague of Bill Jay’s at the ICA.
The first photography exhibition to open at the Royal Academy was To Parnassus in 1989. The first photo shows at the Tate were Cruel + Tender, The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph at Tate Modern, and Wolfgang Tillmans, If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters, at Tate Britain, both in 2003.
David Hurn says the art establishment in Britain remains staggeringly snobby about photography, and is particularly resistant to photojournalism and documentary photography.
David served on the photographic committee of the British Arts Council for five years and the Arts Panel for two. His efforts brought Arts Council funding to photography for the first time, but his struggle to raise the profile of the medium in Britain has all to often fallen on deaf ears. In Wales he was just beginning to make headway before the shutters came down again.
From the beginning of the 20th century until 1970 few in Britain wanted to see any kind of photography given the same status as an art. After the 1970s few among the new photo-gallery elite wanted to promote photojournalism or documentary photography on the walls of their galleries.
What we are left with today are galleries which gravitate towards a bland style of photography that David says allows them to feel that they are exhibiting “some sort of fine art.”
“And that looses audiences,” says Hurn. “Photography at its best is about seeing the world in a very direct way. The second you deviate from that it is less interesting, because what you are then doing is moving into areas that other forms of communication, or art, do so much better.”
David Hurn’s biggest exhibition of the 1970s was a product of his break with London and return to Wales. Wales, Black and White was a unique show that took the gallery visitor through the workflow of the photographer, from hundreds of contact sheets, to numerous work prints, to a final selection of twenty exhibition prints.
Sponsored by the British Arts Council, Wales Black and White opened at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 1976 where David received the Gold Medal. It went on to tour France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy and was due to go to New York but by this time the exhibition was in no fit state to travel any further.
The contact sheet, traditionally nothing more that a tool to assist the selection of images from a strip of negatives had been elevated to being a window to the mind of the photographer.
It was a Cartier-Bresson thing. To get into Magnum in those days you had to show your portfolio, and your contacts, the philosophy being you can’t hide behind your contact sheets.
EASING INTO AND PAST THE SHOT
When David Hurn joined Magnum in 1965, he spent night after night in the agency’s Paris office studying the contact sheets of Elliott Erwitt, Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Initially he found it reassuring to discover that even they made exposure errors.
As time passed Hurn realised that there were patterns in the way all the great photographers worked. Invariably these patterns were similar.
“Reportage photography is a kind of stalking,” says David. “Although a photographer only really has two controls – where they stand and when they release the shutter – the great photographers so often get luck on their side.”
“I could see from the contacts that when they sensed a situation had potential they began a series of individual pictures and adjusted their shooting position to get clarity. They continued shooting as they felt the most pertinent moment was happening.”
“Often the great photographers shot beyond this moment as no one could say what would happen next. They only stopped when they knew that the excitement was over.”
“The result was a contact sheet of a series of pictures of which one might be the most significant. Perhaps the moment never happened, but from the contact sheet you could read the mind of the photographer at work.”
Hurn’s realisation, which occurred in an office above the Rue de Fauborg Saint-Honoré in Paris, that photography was more about editing from a sequence than about just taking single independent shots, became a key element in a pioneering course that changed the direction of photographic education.
In 1973 David Hurn founded the School of Documentary Photography at the Gwent College of Higher Education in Newport, Wales.
Magnum had been David’s school and for the next seventeen years what he had learnt from the great Magnum photographers was channelled through his talent for organisation and clarity of thinking to his students.
Elegant in its simplicity, Hurn’s course was based on methodology, professionalism and control.
It was shown that the classic picture story could be broken down into three types of photograph – establishing shots, relationship shots and portraits. Look at any good photo essay – or a John Ford movie like Stagecoach – and you understand that for a story to be interesting it has to have visual rhythm.
Lectures were on how to caption photographs, on cost analysis, market analysis and SOAP – story origination and planning. Religious studies were never about philosophy, but about the day to day practicalities of working among different cultures and not offending people.
Above all Newport was about realising the potential of a gifted photographer. In the early days of Magnum Inge Morath said that Capa was ‘rooting for your potential.’ Hurn’s Newport did the same.
Magnum photographers like Chris Steele-Perkins, Martin Parr and Koudelka gave talks.
Roger Hutchings, who studied at Newport from 1980 to 1982, recalls David Hurn returning from Arizona having shot a self-initiated essay on premature babies that had been published in Life magazine. This was leading by example that few teachers of photography could match.
Once David said to Roger, “Many of our voices will come back to you.” When you listen to old Newport students they convince you that the voices never went away.
Other well known names who studied during Newport’s golden period include Mike Steel, Tom Jenkins, Paul Reas, and Jonathan Olley. After successful careers in the outside world former Newport students Paul Lowe and Patrick Sutherland became teachers at the London College of Communication.
Stuart Smith, Elliott Erwitt’s book designer of choice, studied at Newport and has returned there recently to teach, encouraging collaboration between students in the design and documentary photography departments.
Dillon Bryden, who was awarded a Tom Hopkinson memorial bursary by The Independent newspaper while studying at the college, and who went on to co-found and run the annual Press Photographers’ Year with Tim Bishop, talks of the work ethic and a very particular code of understanding that David’s course engendered.
Dillon says that there is never a moment when he is not grateful for what he learnt at Newport.
A PLATEAU OF GENIUSES
“In all the arts there is a level above which it is impossible to say this person is better than that person. It would be silly to argue that Matisse is better than Picasso, and Picasso is better than Rembrandt,” says David Hurn when asked who he thinks are the best photographers.
“All you can say is that these people have reached a plateau of which you could legitimately call geniuses.”
Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Brassaï, Friedlander, Avedon, Koudelka and Weegee are on that plateau for David Hurn. His personal favourite though, is Weegee.
“I find it extraordinary that this person charging around with a big inflexible camera could not only be at such pertinent events … the geometry of his pictures is so extraordinarily powerful.”
“Weegee really didn’t have any understanding of the history of painting, or anything like that,” says Hurn. “His composition came out of an exceptional ability to project the essence of the subject matter. In picture after picture his work is so strong. You instantly see what is happening.”
“Weegee is my favourite because he startles me,” says David.
“Bresson in a way is the most remarkable intellectually, because he undoubtedly understood what he was doing, and he projects his own very humanistic approach to the world. And was so consistent.”
“The extraordinary thing about Bresson is that he did it in such a simple way. To all intents and purposes using one camera, one film, one lens. And he never developed his own film and he never printed his own prints. So he did everything that anybody else can do, but produced pictures that nobody else has ever been able to copy.”
“I’m sure more people have tried to be Cartier-Bresson than any other photographer in history. Nobody can do it. And that’s one of the miracles of photography.”
THE SUBJECT OF VULGARITY
Few would disagree that Martin Parr is the most copied photographer of recent times.
Although the initial response to Parr’s colour work of the 1980s was often shock or distaste, it wasn’t long before photographers, including a number of students at Newport, were buying Plaubel Makinas and flash guns and setting off to document the gaudy side of Thatcher’s Britain.
David Hurn, perhaps the most eloquent advocate for Parr’s entry into Magnum is satisfied that his support for Parr has been vindicated. “Magnum has been good for Martin but Martin has been good for Magnum,” says Hurn. “He has shown us other possibilities and been enormously generous with his time and commitment.”
Hurn maintains that Parr’s success lies in the fact he was probably the first photographer to recognise vulgarity and commercialism as a subject matter.
“I think it will be acknowledged that Martin was the one who understood the subtle details that characterise tastelessness today. He has done it in a very clever way, almost as though he has gone back to the origins of photography – to pure documentary – and tabulated as though collecting postage stamps. But he has an eye and a mind that are absolutely pertinent to the times.”
“Young people like Parr’s work. I believe a lot of them see a style that they think they can copy – they can’t – because the pictures are not about style but are about accurate selective process.”
“In Martin’s work I don’t look for great moving individual pictures,” says Hurn. “But my favourite images sum up bodies of work, much as my favourite images from Robert Frank’s The Americans sum up the overall feeling of what, in my opinion, is the ultimate photographic book.”
For a self-taught photographer who learnt his craft at a time when the geometry of a picture was important in itself and an interesting composition was the prerequisite of a marketable image, David Hurn shows enormous generosity of spirit, and perception. “Martin’s not into that,” says Hurn. “He is into the zeitgeist. And that is very clever.”
After seventeen years in charge of photography at Newport College David Hurn announced in a letter to Bill Jay that he was retiring from teaching so that he could return to full-time photography. David said that when he came to look back on his life he wanted to feel that he was a photographer rather than a teacher. “As simple as that.”
Being David the decision was clear, but in the hinterland lay never-ending battles with the bureaucrats who had come to populate an education system predisposed to interfere, and who were determined to turn his jewel-in-the-crown vocational ‘docphot’ course at Newport into an academic course.
An academic course would benefit few students wishing to become working photographers, the beneficiaries would be the administrators and an institute that had the degree status necessary to secure government funding.
One suspects the language required to secure funding would be very different from the lucid, unambiguous vocabulary of photographic practice espoused by Hurn.
“I believe that in a society in which every individual opinion counts, photography at its best has a unique ability to instruct; to help make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear; to spotlight foolishness, to bring people together, to break down barriers of prejudice and ignorance and show ideals worth pursuing. We should trust the peculiarities of our medium. And if we are truly curious or fascinated or profoundly interested in our subjects then we are less tempted to interfere, to control, to change, to improve,” says David Hurn in On Being a Photographer.
David resigned from Newport in 1990. By 1994 his influence had been all but swept away.
Yet Hurn’s achievement persists. Just as Dillon Bryden says there is never a moment when he is not grateful for what he learnt from the course, ‘Newport’ has become one of the talismanic words of photography, a badge worn with pride and no little nostalgia.
For ex-students like Bryden David Hurn is the most important person in photographic education in the UK, and arguably in the world.
“There are hundreds of photographers who just wouldn’t be where they are today without David,” says Homer Sykes, who first met Hurn while a student at the London College of Printing in the late 1960s when Hurn was a part-time tutor at the college.
Later David helped secure two small Arts Council grants for Homer’s book Once A Year – Some Traditional British Customs, the book that launched Sykes’ career.
A willingness to help young photographers navigate their way through an often unsympathetic, and frequently obstructive wider-world coupled with his unparalleled hospitality towards talented colleagues puts David Hurn in a special position in British photography.
In the days leading up to his operation for cancer in 2001 David’s mind focussed on one thing. “Nearly all my memories were to do with friends, and what at the time one would have thought were minor moments. It made me rethink a little bit about the things to do with friendship, and how ultimately genuine friendship is one of the most pleasurable things in life.”
Josef Koudelka, David’s dear, dear friend, prospers as his fame grows, but another close friend, the artist Keith Arnatt who introduced himself to Hurn at Newport in 1973 because he wanted to learn how to take photographs, died in 2008.
In 2009 Bill Jay died from heart-disease at his home in Costa Rica. Bill was 68. With David, Bill and a handful of others had engineered ‘The Great British Photographic Revival’ of the 1960s and 1970s. The two had been bouncing ideas off each other for forty years.
In On Being a Photographer, Bill wrote of David, “Whatever I did I felt David’s presence and guidance within me.”
“The great thing about Bill,” David responds, “is that he’s an original source person, he’s that old fashioned writer that likes to get back to the original source and not spend his whole time looking at other people’s articles.”
“Bill produced a major body of work,” says Hurn. “And it’s a very lateral thinking view on the history of photography.”
Then David adds, “I would be perfectly happy to run a course of which Bill’s writing was the cultural history side.”
Is David Hurn thinking of running a course again? From someone as astute as Hurn, someone who has never drunk or smoked because he dislikes the idea of losing control, this is unlikely to be a slip of the tongue.
Maybe David Hurn was just toying with an idea to explore how it felt.
Perhaps he is serious.
WRITING THE PICTURE by David Hurn and John Fuller was published by Seren on June 5th 2010. During the book’s launch at The Guardian Hay Festival David Hurn and poet John Fuller discussed their collaboration in front of an audience of 220 people: “From warm portraits of rural Wales to a drug addict shooting up in London, from a raucous hen night to a moving suite of images of the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, photographer and poet respond to all aspects of life.” For details and latest purchase information see Amazon.
BILL JAY ON PHOTOGRAPHY : since Bill Jay’s death in 2009 his website Bill Jay on Photography has been kept online by LensWork magazine, publishers of David Hurn and Bill Jay’s classic handbook for photographers On Being a Photographer.
All twelve issues of Album magazine can be downloaded in PDF format from the Album page of Bill Jay on Photography.
Bill Jay’s 1980 essay History of Photography: the inside out approach presents a challenge for everyone interested in the history of the medium.
BOOKS BY DAVID HURN :
• Writing the Picture, with John Fuller, Seren (2010)
• Rebirth of a Capital, Cardiff County Council (2005)
• Living in Wales, Seren (2003)
• Wales: Land of My Father, Thames & Hudson (2000)
• On Looking at Pictures, with Bill Jay, LensWork (2000)
• On Being a Photographer, with Bill Jay, LensWork (1997)
• David Hurn: Photographs 1956-1976, Arts Council of Great Britain (1979)
• I’m a Real Photographer – a short film in which David Hurn talks about his friend the artist Keith Arnatt.
• A House in Bayswater (1960) – David Hurn appears in Ken Russell’s 28 minute black and white film about the inhabitants of a five-story house that stands on a site earmarked for redevelopment.