“Photographers”, opined David Hurn in On Being A Photographer: A Practical Guide, “should not put pictures in a box under their beds and be the only ones that see them. If they put film in their camera, it presupposes that they want to record what they see and show somebody else. Photography is about communication.” Proving himself to be a man true to his word, the renowned documentary photographer has this year generously gifted two hugely significant collections of images to National Museum Wales, where they can be exhibited for the enjoyment of others.
Of the two collections, one comprises around 1,500 of Hurn’s own images, showcasing his lifetime’s work. However, it’s with Swaps, an exhibition of 80 photographs selected from the second collection – comprising 700 images taken by other illustrious names within the profession – that the Museum has chosen to launch its first gallery specifically dedicated to photography, situated on the first floor in a beautiful, light space with a domed ceiling.
Given that some of Hurn’s most famous pictures are of the Beatles, it seems appropriate that the Swaps collection was assembled with more than a little help from his friends. The process of gift and exchange involved in its creation underlines his fervent belief in the value of photography as a means of communication, as well as foreshadowing the whole bequest.
Among those whose work features in the exhibition are such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, Martine Franck, Bruce Davidson and Steve McCurry – many of whom (like Hurn) are or were members of the prestigious co-operative Magnum Photos and would likely describe themselves, as Hurn has, as “simply a recorder of that which I find of interest around me”. The selected images are testament to his view that staging and artifice are unnecessary, and that, with careful observation, engaging subject matter can be found everywhere: “life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities”.
Swaps, then, is a means for Hurn to pay tribute to the world-renowned photographers who have inspired him and who have become close friends – most notably Sergio Larraín (whom he met by complete chance while photographing pigeons in Trafalgar Square), Josef Koudelka and his contemporaries Ian Berry, Patrick Ward, John Bulmer, Philip Jones Griffiths and Sir Don McCullin. But the exhibition is also clearly an opportunity for him to play the role of patron and promote the work of younger generations, those whom he feels have the potential to achieve truly international standard, such as Clementine Schneidermann and Gareth Phillips. Sue Packer, a graduate of the School of Documentary Photography that Hurn founded in 1973, is represented by a stunning poolside portrait of swimmers at Cheltenham Ladies’ College which exemplifies the “sophisticated geometry” for which he lauds her. Rhodri Jones’ image of a new housing estate on the outskirts of Cardiff casts the development as the city’s advancing frontier, underlining the inexorable process of urban expansionism by offering just a glimpse of the farmland that lies beyond.
Some of the images pack a visceral punch, deeply unsettling the viewer through both the subject matter and the way in which it’s captured. Ferdinando Scianna’s photo depicts an Andalusian woman posing seductively in the shade with the shadows of three male figures looking on, casting the viewer in a similarly sinister and voyeuristic role. The pictures by Capa, McCullin and Jones Griffiths all report back from the frontline on the grim realities of war and starvation, while Dorothea Lange, legendary chronicler of the Great Depression, contributes her first published photo White Angel Breadline, which has continued relevance today with the rising use of foodbanks. Most poignant of all is Jérôme Sessini’s image of the interior of a bombed-out school in Aleppo, which transcends the label “ruin porn” by virtue of the colourful, childlike murals painted on the walls, a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastating cost of war on the young.
Swaps is not a depressing experience, though – far from it. Positioned immediately below Sessini’s picture in a neat juxtaposition is Richard Kalvar’s snap of two pigeons scrapping beak to beak on an old woman’s head in Central Park. The image is rich in humour and amply illustrates Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment”, like several others in the exhibition: Elliott Erwitt’s photo of a bird mirroring a tap; Jeff Jacobson’s snap of a dog licking its lips while eyeing a baby lying on the floor; Nick Treharne’s picture of the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles travelling down Bute Street in an open carriage on the way to the opening of the Welsh Assembly in 2011, with the graffitied slogan “INDEPENDANT TROPICAL WALES” scrawled on a wall in the background. The fact that someone has attempted to correct the spelling of “INDEPENDANT”, as if out of a sense of propriety ahead of the royal visit, makes it all the more amusing.
Above all, the photos on display encourage the viewer to see the world afresh and pore over every little detail. Erich Hartmann’s 1982 close-up image of IBM integrated circuits looks like the model for a utopian 1960s housing project or an array of bold, gleaming skyscrapers. Most remarkable of all, arguably, is the picture taken from Martin Parr’s seaside series The Last Resort [pictured above], in which a child is sunbathing on a towel on a concrete slipway in the shadow of an excavator’s caterpillar track. As both a humorous depiction of the stoic determination to make the most of the British summertime and a chilling echo of democracy protestors prostrating themselves in front of tanks, it’s an image rich in meaning.
In On Being A Photographer, Hurn declared: “Photographers should actively look for ideas, attitudes, images, influences from the very best photographers of all ages. You cannot learn in a vacuum. The whole history of photography is a free and open treasure trove of inspiration.” That would serve as a perfectly apt description of Swaps, a literally awesome exhibition that is the perfect way to mark both the opening of the gallery and Magnum’s 70th birthday. As a sign reads in the middle of the Arizona desert in one of Hurn’s own photos, “COME SEE”.
Until 11th March 2018 at the National Museum, Cardiff. Info: https://museum.wales/cardiff
words BEN WOOLHEAD