As a senior member of the prestigious photography collective Magnum, David Hurn is used to having his prints on prominent display in major galleries – most recently the Swaps exhibition at the National Museum Wales. But he also maintains a fondness for the “enthusiasm and ambition” of smaller spaces, and a commendable commitment to supporting them. Rhondda’s Workers Gallery, for instance, put on Ynyshir: 25 Mile Radius in 2019. Most recently, there’s Ffoto Newport: a micro-gallery in a shop unit in the city’s refurbished Market Arcade.
For the fledgling gallery, which opened in November 2021, an exhibition of Hurn’s work is a significant coup, not least because it features a number of previously unseen images. The photographer’s generosity was no doubt also motivated by his close personal connection to the city, as the founder of the School Of Documentary Photography at Newport College Of Art in the 1970s. Under his leadership, the School very soon gained a reputation for excellence, and when Ieuan Berry established Ffoto Newport last year, he did so with the explicit intention of recognising and celebrating the city’s rich photographic heritage.
David Hurn: Newport, which opened on Sat 7 May with the man himself in attendance, depicts townsfolk at work (supervising a bakery’s Swiss roll production line, for instance) and at play (enjoying a few ends of bowls in the shadow of the Llanwern steelworks). There is joy, but there is also disaster in the form of a blazing inferno at the docks in 1973.
Hurn appears to have seized upon ceremonial occasions in particular as prime photo opportunities, sensing the comic value in juxtaposition: a procession of white-robed Eisteddfod prize winners passing a Wimpy; a man dressed as Jesus, hunched over under the weight of the huge cross he’s carrying, shuffling past a statue bearing a scythe.
Best of all, though, is the male sunbather stretched out on a towel in his Speedos: hands behind head, radio at hand, factories and muddy banks of the River Usk in the background. Echoing the pictures collected in The Last Resort and By The Sea, books by Hurn’s fellow Magnum members Martin Parr and Markéta Luskačová respectively, there’s something quintessentially British about the scene – a stoical determination to make the most of one’s leisure time, whatever the circumstances. Little wonder this was chosen to be the largest image on the Folio exhibition poster produced in conjunction with Welsh photography magazine Offline.
The current exhibition may be of pictures from the 1970s and 1980s taken by an adopted son of the city and founding father of photography in Wales, but Ffoto Newport has not been set up only to dwell on the past or only to display the images of those whose reputations are already firmly established. On the contrary, Berry is firmly of the belief that “it’s also extremely important to support grassroots channels in photography to help nurture new talent” – hence the availability of the space to locally based amateurs eager to show off their work. Ffoto Newport will hopefully prove to be not merely somewhere to call in on when you find yourself in town, but a platform or even a springboard for those following in Hurn’s footsteps.
David Hurn: Newport is at Ffoto Newport until Fri 17 June. Admission: free. Info: here
words and photos BEN WOOLHEAD
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