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David Hurn Photography

With the opening of a new photography exhibition space at the National Museum Cardiff, Ben Woolhead and Jaydon Martin spoke to legendary documentary photographer David Hurn about his extraordinary life. Written by Laura Blackwell.

“I would photograph every single evening and every weekend,” begins Vogue veteran David Hurn. “It was then that I discovered this thing about ‘doers attract doers and talkers attract talkers.’” Before he was an internationally credited photographer David was in the army.

“For various reasons I suddenly decided ‘I want to be a photographer’ and so I left the army and went and sold shirts in Harrods.

“I met people like Ken Russell, and even people like Michael Foot who later became leader of the Labour Party and was an extraordinarily intelligent man. That grouping of people sort of attracted each other.

Hurn continues: “I’d been shooting my pictures as you do and then the Hungarian Revolution [happened] and it just seemed the logical thing to go and do. So, we hitchhiked to Austria and we were very lucky, we got a lift into Budapest in ambulances in fact. We went to find out where the press were and when I went into the hotel the LIFE magazine journalists were there and they didn’t have a photographer at that time, and incidentally they said ‘who are you’ and I said ‘freelance,’ and they instantly said ‘ok, well work with us.’ Little did they know I was upstairs in my room with a book on how to use my camera because before that I just had a Kodak Retinette. So, I trotted off with the LIFE magazine journalist. It was comparatively easy then.

“I had something to show that was different. You go to somewhere like Hungary and you’re 21 and you’ve got pictures of people shooting at each other. That is different, you know? You can’t usually, as a young photographer, have authorship. Authorship develops over a period of time. You shoot lots and lots of pictures and then even more pictures, and then gradually what forms is your authorship, which has a lot more to do with the subject matter than anything to do with whether you used this camera or that camera, so I had something to show. Then I developed that.

“I have never, as far as I know, taken assignments. Assignments are usually given to jobbing photographers. They do the job well, there’s nothing wrong with that. But what magazines really want is people with ideas.”

With the knowledge that he had featured in a few of Ken Russell’s films, we wondered if he had any idea at the time that he was responsible for capturing a period that would later on be felt to be so culturally significant.

“No, not at all. I suppose what it was, was one was very aware that your friends were extraordinarily talented, and talented in areas that one would not normally be that interested in, so when Vidal Sassoon suddenly became a famous hairdresser — that’s a strange phenomenon. Because hairdressers were not that well known, you know? You just took it for granted. All of these people were workers. I keep saying the same thing: they were doers, not talkers. And that was stimulating but it wasn’t until the end of the 60s that one began to realise this particular grouping of people were that exceptional, and in hindsight they were that exceptional.

“I wasn’t just there: ‘oh, this is a good commercial job,’ I was interested and so I quite liked working on film. But to be honest the second I didn’t really have to do it anymore I stopped. Part of the reason for coming back to Wales in 1970 was that I could drop all that. I didn’t have to earn that sort of money, which you had to do. If you’re in London it’s a very expensive place to live. But when I came back to Wales I was established enough that I discovered I could work from Wales by working I mean internationally. I’ve never been interested in being a local photographer.”

David Hurn Photography

Returning to Wales in 1970 with the pressure off, the camera was Hurn’s way of reconnecting with the country.

“I’ve always been interested in words which are used a lot that I don’t understand the meaning of, and one of those words is ‘culture.’ I would hear people talk about ‘Welsh culture’ and I would ask them: ‘what do you mean by that?’ And they’d all flounder and act as if I was attacking them. I mean I find it fascinating when you ask a question and sometimes people are so vulnerable they get incredibly defensive. So I decided what I was going to do was wander around Wales photographing the things I thought were interesting to me, and that picture would be what I felt was Welsh culture.

“And then in my mind I decided I was going to do three books which were Land of My Father — which was how we live and function in Wales — and then there was Living in Wales which was to do with the people that live in Wales because again I was interested in: What is being Welsh? And it’s different things to different people. And the third thing is Landscape which I’m working on at the moment. I have a very dear friend who works for the BBC. So I’m trying to work out a way of doing a book which — basically a chapter a month comes out on the web. But it’s very difficult because I’ve discovered that if you have Wales in the title of anything forget it. Nobody outside Wales wants to buy anything with Wales in the title. That sounds as though I’m being a bit crass but let’s pretend it’s Luxembourg; if you saw a book that had Luxembourg in the title, we wouldn’t all be rushing to buy it.

The best writers I think from Wales have been people like Bernice Rubens but she never wrote about Wales, she wrote about international things and I think that’s important.

With the 20th anniversary of the Welsh Assembly, we wanted to hear his views on whether or not it has brought power closer to the people and its effect on culture in the country.

“The problem with the question is that one doesn’t know what it would’ve been like if it wasn’t [legislated] so you’re speculating, and I’m not a very political person so the political side of it I don’t really understand. There are things that I don’t want done that democratically, so I don’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who democratically got to where he is, I want a very professional person and I can’t see why I would want anything less than that in the things that interest me.”

He digresses: “Bryn Terfel is not Bryn Terfel if he decides he’s gonna sing in Wales all the time. He brings back an enormous amount to Wales because he’s singing in Chicago and Milan, and then he’s willing to say ‘I’m Welsh.’ Now that to me is the best way to publicise — if that’s the right word — Wales, and go and do something on the international stage, and then people say ‘ooh, he’s Welsh,’ not to somehow preach within Wales that everything has to be Welsh. I think that’s a very negative approach. Having said that, I think we have people who are not publicised as well [as they could be].”

We asked Hurn to explain the origin of the title of his new exhibition along with the selection process.

“In the late 50s I was struggling to decide what I wanted from photography. It happened that I was photographing pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I bumped into another photographer also shooting pictures of pigeons and for some reason we started to chat and had coffee and that person turned out to be Sergio Larrain. So we became friends and I started to look at his pictures, and because I loved what he did he obviously understood that and said: ‘here’s a couple of pictures.’

“Now at that time there were no photo galleries. Photo galleries didn’t start until ‘68 or the ‘70s. A photograph was simply a bit of paper, so the idea was very bizarre. The idea that I looked at these pictures and wanted to actually have a physical thing — was something that nobody else did.

David Hurn Photography

“And then suddenly I realised I had about 700 of these things, and they’d all been given to me so my terrible chapel upbringing made me feel that I couldn’t sell them, there was something immoral about that. So I thought I would put down some stringent rules about it, one of which was that the 700 not only could never be sold but they couldn’t be broken up. They had to be of a set.

“I’m a bit crafty sometimes and I thought ‘well, we don’t have a gallery in the [National Museum of Wales], maybe I can blackmail the museum to open a gallery for photography, it’s the right time etc.’ And I did a kind of naughty. I knew someone at the Getty, I wrote to them and said ‘look, I’m thinking of donating 700 pictures, are you vaguely interested’ and I instantly heard back: ‘of course, we’d love to have them.’ So instantly the museum were onto me.

“I remember losing my cool once and sort of saying to a couple of people: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, my mum knows more about photography than you do.’ I was shown the equivalent of a broom closet and: ‘ooh this would be lovely,’ and I’d say ‘okay well, if you think it’s so lovely why don’t we move the Monets into the broom closet and we’ll have the gallery where the Monets are,’ and it went on and on and on like this. But the good thing was that David Anderson, the head of the gallery, was very supportive. And there was a little bit of tension elsewhere — rightly so, people saw their authority within the gallery. New person coming in — did it threaten their jobs? All these sort of totally understandable things went on but the reality in the end was that we got the gallery. It’s a beautiful gallery, the best possible space in the museum that could be for photography. So I gave them the 700 pictures and they were also interested in my archive. I said: ‘what I’ll do is a definitive edit of 1500 of what I think are my best pictures,’ and in fact I made six sets of that, so one of those sets is going to the Getty, one is going probably to Phoenix, one is going to the Martin Parr Foundation which will be in Bristol, and one of them will be in the museum.”

Talking about his interest in photographing the more mundane as opposed to staged photography, Hurn explains that it isn’t necessarily due to the idea that it will become increasingly significant as time passes.

“I kind of don’t really think of it in that way, it just happens to be what interests me,” he clarifies. “So something like ballroom dancing — is not something that I would normally do but as I’ve become interested in it I’ve suddenly realised that the people that do this really care about it. They go and practice a lot and they’re not sitting watching Gogglebox, they’re actually out there doing something physically and their family are at home sewing dresses and putting sequins on them. I’m not suggesting that I love all that, but what I’m saying is they do and they’re passionate about it, and that passion interests me. Now I am only interested in that if it happens, so I’m not the least bit interested in setting up something. I’m not suggesting somebody else shouldn’t do that, [but] I don’t think they should do it without transparency.

“It happens that what I think is significant is things like people touching each other and I love it when two people look as though they’re gonna kiss each other, even as if they’re going to hit each other. That sort of subtlety — the difference between that and that — interests me.”

This brings us to the question: does that mean you’re opposed to the idea of taking a photo and then working on it in an editing suite afterwards?

“Well, it depends…” David is now admittedly hesitant with his words. “If you’re trying to change what you feel is the truth of the picture, that, I think, is boring. I mean basically all people do in Photoshop is make bad pictures worse; doesn’t make them better by suddenly having a purple sky or something like that. It’s a cover up of the fact that the picture isn’t very good in the first place. Having said that, our eyes see differently from a camera. What we used to do under an enlarger is what we used to call ‘dodge’ and ‘burn,’ and so you would bring out the highlights and keep back the shadows. And all you’re trying to do there is get back to what you fantasised you visually were seeing. So to do what one did under an enlarger seems reasonable.

“It’s difficult to genuinely be observing, it’s very easy to see, but it’s very difficult to get it more precise than that. But the fact that it is so difficult is what makes it fun. If it was easy it would be boring. You might as well go and work in Tesco’s.”

His BA Documentary Photography course at the University of South Wales was set up with the intention to get willing photographers jobs, but Hurn has mixed views on the importance of photography not being deemed as something that people can be trained and educated in.

“They can and they can’t,” he claims. “I was interested in what people were interested in. So people like Tom Jenkins. The young 18-year-old said: ‘I want to become a sports photographer’ and I’d say: ‘okay, that sounds interesting but if next week you were going to photograph something what would you photograph’ and he’d say: ‘well, it’s the 100th anniversary of when Arsenal changed from a blue shirt to a red shirt,’ and you suddenly realise this guy knows a lot about sports. It’s very easy to teach people that know and have a passion for a subject, to learn how to shoot the pictures. The photography is the extension.

“I deliberately wanted that because I didn’t want people coming onto the course that thought they were going to get a degree and that was going to do something. I’ve never known a picture editor or someone in the gallery that’s ever turned round to the person and said: ‘do you have a degree?’ They’re interested in the pictures.

“If you’re not out there shooting pictures 6 or 7 hours a day, you’re being an amateur. It is as simple as that. I don’t really want a surgeon who works one weekend a month being the person who’s going to operate on me, I prefer to be operated on by a surgeon who does two operations a day or something. The sort of every-other-weekend photographer can not be as good as he could be if he was photographing all the time.”

Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection, National Museum Cardiff, Until Sun 11 Mar. Admission: free. Info: 030 0111 2333 /

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