David Hurn

2015-12-11_18-44-46David Hurn, who went on to become a Magnum photographer and a notable educator, only joined the camera club and eventually became a photographer as a way to escape the claustrophobic routine of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst where he was studying to became an Army officer. “I joined the camera club, largely as they were the only people allowed out of school grounds, since the darkrooms were set a bit closer to town.” “Of course the problem was that they did demand to see the occasional bit of evidence of my having taken a photograph, so I had to learn how to use the thing they gave me.” (2)

The possibility of following in his father’s footsteps and become an army officer was significantly diminished once he recognised that Henri Cartier Bresson’s 1955 Picture Post Series on Russia (3) (i) showed that young Russians were not the “grotesquely belligerent” (4) people his Sandhurst lecturers would have him believe. Hurn would later say that “What I saw in my viewfinder and in published images made me profoundly pacifist”; not an ideal philosophy for an army officer.

He left Sandhurst and moved to London and at the age of 22 was selling shirts at Harrods when he met Michael Peto (6) (ii) at an exhibition and he in turn introduced him to the Reflex Picture Agency and where Hurn then worked as a part-time paparazzi (iii) using their long lens to capture, amongst others, the Royals. By 1956 he was becoming bored with stalking Prince Philip and his family and set off to hitchhike to Hungary with his friend John Antrobus; the Hungarian uprising was brewing and Hurn and Antrobus had a rather vague idea that they could “cover” the story. “It wasn’t really planned, or organised in any meaningful sense.” “We were sneaking over the border in the back of an ambulance with our pockets full of film rolls and notebooks, without a clue what we were doing apart from looking for trouble.”

Luckily for Hurn, and I intend no disrespect when I say Hurn’s career is littered with remarkable strokes of luck, they met Eileen Travers in Budapest, an experienced journalist working for the Daily Mail. Through Travers they met the Life Magazine coresponents who were short of photographers and, as the Russian troops were by now putting down the rebellion, they immediately put him under contract to cover the uprising. His pictures were published in Life, Picture Post and The Observer and his career was underway. On his return to London he recognised that there were a number of established photo journalists already at work and he decided that there was little point in duplicating what they were doing (1). His private work was motivated by his pleasure in photographing “people going about their ordinary lives”, an area that allowed him to indulge what he calls his nosiness, but he also needed paying work so he began to work for magazines.

The next period of Hurn’s life, which saw him rise to being one of the most sought after freelance photographers in London, was a heady mix of fashion shoots for Vogue and Harpers’ Bazaar, professional and social engagement with the celebrities of the sixties and a growing involvement in the world of film firstly working for Tom Carlile, the chief publicist for the film King of Kings; then staying on in Spain to work with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren on El Cid. He also worked with Ken Russell and then as a production stills photographer on the set of the early Bond films (iv), A Hard Day’s Night and Barbarella. His photographs of Jane Fonda both clothed and unclothed made the front cover of a hundred magazines world wide.

Despite his growing reputation and earning power he continued to pursue his own photo projects on what Bill Jay calls “alternative lifestyles, or sub-cultures”; essays on the gay community, strippers, criminals and the drug scene in what would come be know as the “Swinging Sixties”. Jay says that this was always his most important work and was differentiated by being in black and white; his day-job demanded that he worked in colour. Jay describes Hurn’s photo-persona as the “quiet chronicler of the endearing, eccentric foibles of ordinary people caught up in the panoply of life’s pleasures”. This was a important era in British photography partly fuelled by a huge demand for photo documentary and journalism; Hurn explains that, at this time, the colour supplements had roughly a hundred pages of editorial to fill every week but there was a comparatively small number of photo journalists available to meet the demand (10).

In 1960 Hurn was working in Trafalgar Square where he was noticed by Sergio Larrain (10), a Magnum photographer normally based in Chile. Hurn remains fascinated by the circumstances of this meeting; it only took “seconds” for Larrain to assess Hurn’s “status in the medium” (4) and this chance meeting led to an introduction to John Hillelson who was Magnum’s London distributer. Larrian also critiqued Hurn’s personal portfolio and identified that whilst he was not a photo journalist in the mould of Don McCullin, Ian Berry or Philip Jones Griffiths he had a talent for observing and recording the human condition. Hurn says that these comments freed him up  to find a niche “which was much more personal, and much more involved.”

His circle of friends continued to expand and his flat at 4 Porchester Court must have been a lively place in the sixties with visits from Ringo Starr, and John Lennon even though Hurn was not a Beatles fan  “I remember thinking I wasn’t that impressed by The Beatles, that they were just a pop group and not terribly serious” (2) and “I got the feeling that perhaps they didn’t like each other much” (1). Apart from pop stars, actors, actresses and famous models the flat was a meeting place for a group of  photographers who, like Hurn, were fast establishing their names on the international stage. Don McCullin, Ian Berry, Philip Jones Griffiths, Bill Jay, Elliot Erwitt, Patrick Ward, Leonard Freed, Erich Hartman and amongst many others.  Jones Griffiths laid out some of the pages for Vietnam Inc. in this flat and Josef Koudelka did the same with Gypsies having previously used the darkroom to process some of the eight hundred unprocessed rolls that he had smuggled out of Czechoslovakia.

It is impossible to imagine the creative energy that must have filled the place or what it would have been like to see the first prints of some of Koudelka’s greatest work still damp from the dark room or watch Jones Griffiths piece together his incredible book that arguably helped to stop a pointless and horrific war. What would any photographer give to be in such company?

Although his commercial work and his private projects had taken him away from photo journalism he could play that role when needs must. On Friday October 26th in 1966 after torrential rain a colliery slag heap slid down a mountainside and engulfed a row of terrace houses and a village school. One hundred and sixteen children were among the one hundred and forty four victims of the Aberfan disaster.

“I was with another photographer, Ian Berry, in Bristol, I think, when we heard the news of the tragedy over the car radio. We immediately said, ‘We need to be there’. All the roads into the valley were closed, but I had enough local knowledge to find a way into the town from the north. We stayed there all day, through the night, and into the following morning, as these desperate efforts to rescue the buried children were going on. These were the most emotional few days of my life.” (1)

For my generation Aberfan was probably the first national disaster we became aware of; I was thirteen and can still visualise the dark grainy television coverage of the aftermath of the doomed rescue attempt. The eight photographs included in Hurn’s book (1) brought all those memories flooding back. His picture of a young buy with his arm round the shoulder of an even younger friend or relative watching the miners desperately trying to save their own children is as upsetting today as it was in 1966. This series emphasises Hurn’s views on the power of photography with its ability to communicate raw emotion across nearly fifty years. As the only journalists on the scene at a time when the media was not as quick on its feet to reach the scene of news stories they were treated with suspicion and some anger but their photographs became part of the evidence that ensured action was taken to protect these pit villages.

Their moving images and impromptu rush to the scene inspired Henri Cartier Bresson to circulate a letter inside Magnum that praised the two young photographers. In 1967 both Berry and Hurn became full members of the cooperative.

I feel a particular connection with Hurn’s work from the sixties, I was not old enough to be truly part of the sixties generation but by the end of the decade at the age of seventeen I was experiencing parts of the life style he was photographing. The pictures in his book, The 1960’s (1), document the people and events that not only changed British music and the other arts but, probably for the first time in history, created a fundamental cultural division between parents and their teenage and twenty something children. We no longer liked the same music, watched the same films, read the same books, wore the same clothes, sported the same haircuts or related to the same politicians. By the time my generation had children we expected them to want different things and to be rebellious but for our parents this was not the way they expected things to turn out and it was a period of high tension in many families. Hurn’s photographs of the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival bring memories of that era sharply back in focus and it is good to know that we were, at least once, in the same place at the same time.

By 1972 Hurn was becoming disillusioned with his commercial career and, recently divorced, he headed back to his native Wales (v) to capture pictures for a book project There are a number of his photographs of Wales on the Magnum site and they support the idea of Hurn as a quiet and gentle observer of life. It was during this trip that he met a college administrator, a conversation that led to his design for the perfect photography course; the presentation of a proposal to Gwent College and his fifteen year tenure as the Director of The School of Documentary Photography within Gwent College in Newport.

As an educator, a documentary photographer and through his long involvement with the photography committee of the Arts Council Hurn has played a significant role in shaping what Bill Jay calls “the national attitude to photography.” (4). Hurn returned to life as a full time photographer in 1990. He has subsequently worked on number of projects that continue to speak to his ability as a direct and honest documentary photographer. One such project which tells us much about the man is his long term project to record Tintern, his home village. The village website (12) tells us that Hurn is “happy to be invited to any village event or to upcoming baptisms and weddings” to record the event. The website includes a number of series from this project, photographs that record the life of a small community. They are, as might be expected of a Magnum photographer, technically excellent but the subject matter is of ordinary people going about the ordinary activities of a small community. It documents not just this group of people but a way of life that is part of the identity of rural Britain. John Tagg said “The portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity.” (13) These portraits of the villagers of Tintern are just that.

The overriding impression having looked at so much of his work in the last week is that his photographs are about the subject not the photographer; there is a notable lack of ego in his observational style; a straight forward approach that speaks of integrity and honesty. But, David Hurn is best summarised in his own words.

“In previous ages the word ‘art’ was used to cover all forms of human skill. The Greeks believed that these skills were given by the gods to man for the purpose of improving the condition of life. In a real sense, photography has fulfilled the Greek ideal of art; it should not only improve the photographer, but also improve the world.” (4)

Notes on Text

(i) Hurn specifically mentions the image of a Russian army office buying his wide a hat which made him cry as it reminded him of his father doing the same when home on leave (1). I don’t know which of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs of the Soviet Union were published in Picture Post in January and February 1955 but there is a series of 33 of his 1954 study of the Soviet Union on the Magnum website (3). According to the Thames and Hudson retrospective (5) of his work extracts from his Soviet Union project were published at least 47 times in 1955 in a remarkably wide range of magazines including Picture Post. This statistic is a comment on the times; the sheer number of outlets for a documentary photographer or photojournalist is astounding; his reputation was such that Picture post, Life, Paris Match, Der Stern, Harpers Bazaar, De Katholieke Illustratie and the New York Herald Tribune all published not one but several series from his Russian collection; and, after October 1955 I cannot find any further mention of this series, by 1956 his published work is geographically broader featuring France, Italy, England, Finland and Sweden. Looking through the pictures posted on Magnum and those included in the Thames and Hudson retrospective it is not hard to see how a young cadet officer might come to question the characterisation of Russians as members of an evil empire bent on territorial expansion. As would be expected and quite reasonably HCB was selective in his subjects, his role was neither to promote or degrade Russian society, with the result that his photographs humanise Muscovites; in Red Square a grandfather (I presume) points out a landmark to his granddaughter, a young soldier holds his small son, two pretty ladies chatting in the street attract the attention of two handsome soldiers, an impressively muscular male worker receives instruction from his female supervisor, veterans of the Great Patriotic War gather at an agricultural fair and so on. These photographs show the similarities between “us” and the Russians , people who work, love, play, compete at sport and adore their children and grandchildren. There is nothing here that would encourage a young man who was more than capable of thinking for himself to want to go to war and kill them.

(ii) Michael Peto was a Hungarian born photojournalist who documented Britain, Eastern Europe, Israel and India in the 1950s and 60’s. As a photojournalist he worked for the Observer and his collection at The University of Dundee (6) contains a large number of portraits of the political figures of his era. 

(iii) The word paparazzi means “buzzing insects” and was probably introduced to the public by Time magazine in 1961 in an article called “Paparazzi on the Prowl” (7). Its origin lies in the classic 1960 Fellino film La Doce Vita which included a character by the name of Paparazzo who based on the real life Italian celebrity-hound Tazio Secchiaroli (8). Secchiaroli died in 1998 (9)

(iv) John Carlile asked Hurn to help with a “B” movie that he had become involved with but that was expected to flop and therefore had a limited publicity budget. The film was Dr. No, the first Sean Connery Bond Film. Hurn went on to work on Russia With love where the publicists wanted a photograph of Connery holding Bond’s Walther PPK but they forgot to bring the gun to the photo shoot. Hurn had a Walther air pistol at home, a similar looking gun but with a longer barrel, the idea was for the studio to airbrush out part of the barrel before the shots were used but they forgot so one of the most famous movie posters of all time features Sean Connery holding David Hurn’s air pistol. (1)

(v) Hurn was born in Surrey but he has always been a Welshman at heart.



(1) Hurn, David (2015) The 1960s Photographed by David Hurn. London: Real Art Press

(4) Hurn, David & Jay, Bill (1997) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (Kindle Edition 2010) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing.

(5) Cartier-Bresson, Henri ( 2006) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and The World. With essays by various authors. London: Thames and Hudson

(8) Jay, Bill (2009) LensWork #83: the Best of Bill Jay’s EndNotes. (Kindle Edition 2011) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing

(13) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.


(2) Wales On Line (2010) Magnum Photographer David Hurn Turns his Lens on Wales (accessed at Wales on Line 7.12.15) – http://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/showbiz/magnum-photographer-david-hurn-turns-1890139

(3) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1954) The Soviet Union (accessed at Magnum Photos 8.12.15) – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN#/CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN&POPUPIID=2S5RYDZGV786&POPUPPN=10

(6) Peto, Michael. The Peto Gallery (accessed at the University of Dundee 8.12.15) – http://www.dundee.ac.uk/archives/peto/petogallery/

(7) Time Magazine (1961) The Press: Paparazzi on the Prowl” (accessed at Time Magazine 8.12.15) – http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,872287,00.html

(9) Boxer, Sarah (1998) Tazio Secchiaroli, the Model for Paparazzo, dies at 73 (accessed at the New York Times 8.12.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/25/world/tazio-secchiaroli-the-model-for-paparazzo-dies-at-73.html

(10) Harrison, Graham (2010) David Hurn (accessed at Photo Histories 3.12.15) – http://www.photohistories.com/index/58/index-of-articles

(11) Larrain, Sergio. Magnum Portfolio (accessed at Magnum 8.12.15) – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535Z8S

(12) Hurn, David (2014) David Hurn’s Tintern Photographic Project (accessed at the Tintern Village web site 10.12.15) – http://www.tinternvillage.co.uk/history/david-hurns-photographic-project/

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