You’d expect an exhibition originally staged to mark the 70th birthday of Magnum, the world-renowned photographic collective, to contain some truly breathtaking images – and David Hurn: Swaps certainly doesn’t disappoint. Four years after going on show in London, the photos have finally come home to the National Museum Cardiff.
Ever since starting out in the late 1950s, Hurn has been exchanging prints with fellow photographers whose work he admires, including some of the most celebrated practitioners of the artform. Like two others before it (held in 2017 and 2018), David Hurn: Swaps, curated by fellow Magnum member Martin Parr, gives a flavour of the astonishing archive he’s amassed and now bequeathed to the Museum, as well as offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy the best of his own work, much of which has been made in Wales.
Among those represented this time around are Magnum cofounder and French godfather of photojournalism Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose image of a Russian soldier buying his wife a hat in a 1955 issue of Picture Post first inspired Hurn to pick up a camera; Sergio Larrain, the Chilean photographer who became his mentor following a chance meeting in Trafalgar Square; Bruce Davidson, whom he volunteered to assist during the American’s working visit to the UK in 1960; Elliott Erwitt, who taught him that commercial photography could be profitable artistically as well as economically; and a host of close friends, including Josef Koudelka and Philip Jones Griffiths.
The images are displayed like spider diagrams, with Hurn’s photos as central hubs surrounded by the prints he received in return. This reveals which have proved to be his most popular pictures –notably, one showing the Beatles poring over scripts for A Hard Day’s Night (proof that interest in behind-the-scenes footage of the Fab Four at work didn’t begin with Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back) and another of a dapper elderly gent at the 1967 MG Car Owners’ Ball, reaching up to grasp a balloon with the bright-eyed glee of a toddler.
The arrangement also acts as an invitation to the viewer to draw further connections between pictures. Sometimes, those parallels seem obvious – as in the case of Herbert List choosing to swap his image of boys wrestling in the Baltic Sea for Hurn’s picture, of a titanic two-team tussle over an enormous football at a Young Farmers event in Brecon. Elsewhere, however, the effect is sharp contrast rather than connection. Lorenzo Meloni’s print of dead IS soldiers lined up in the dust was exchanged for a photo of a young girl post-Confirmation, joyously holding her hands up and out as if to welcome whatever life will bring.
Unlike contemporaries Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin, Hurn isn’t known for reportage from the frontline, having instead carved out a niche in the 1960s as a chronicler of what McCullin termed “tinsel society”. But it’s worth remembering that he first came to the attention of Life magazine as a rookie covering the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, while the picture he took in the immediate aftermath of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 – two boys surveying the devastation, their backs to the camera, one’s arm around the other’s shoulder – captures with terrible poignancy an event whose consequences continue to resonate more than 50 years later. In exchange for it, Hurn received one of the 20th century’s most instantly recognisable images: Stuart Franklin’s shot of a lone Chinese civilian standing defiant in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, bags in hand as though he got distracted on the way home from the shops. No matter how many times you see it, it loses none of its power.
Everywhere you look in Swaps, though, there are photos that will be burned into your brain for days afterwards. Chris Steele-Perkins’ shot of four shaven-headed prisoners in a Leningrad cell, for instance, staring between the bars and out of the frame at you with a mixture of wariness and fear; or Moises Saman’s image of injured soldiers being airlifted to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, which in its rich lighting, colours and texture resemble a Renaissance painting. I find myself most struck by Jonas Bendiksen’s picture of a Russian Orthodox christening in Moldova, the congregation stood on a frozen lake and the traditional font replaced by a large cross-shaped hole cut in the ice.
Take the plunge and immerse yourself in this exhibition and you’re guaranteed to emerge feeling invigorated. Hurn and his correspondents from around the globe and across the decades open windows on worlds that are sometimes familiar, sometimes utterly alien, but always captivating.
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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