Sunday, December 17, 2017

A life through a lens

It's not every day that you get your photo taken by a Magnum photographer - even if it was with what he called his "Snappy Snaps camera".

The imminent opening of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Wales, Swaps, consisting of images given to or swapped with David Hurn over the course of his distinguished career had prompted us (Buzz) to contact him about the possibility of a phone interview. "Why don't you come to the house?" came the reply. And so it was that on a glorious early autumn day we found ourselves at his cottage in Tintern, snuggled in the crook of the River Wye, being generously treated to coffee, a tour of his home and studio and a two-hour conversation that ranged over everything from how he got started to how he sees photography in the increasingly visual culture of the present day.

Hurn rehearsed for our benefit the extraordinary story of his big break: deciding on a whim to travel to Hungary to cover the 1956 Revolution and finding himself commissioned to take pictures for LIFE magazine. It was by virtue of this serendipitous series of events that he began to establish his reputation. By the 1960s, he was working on a series of dream assignments, including (probably most famously) shooting behind the scenes of A Hard Day's Night, Barbarella and a series of James Bond films. An honorary Welshman, he moved back in 1970 and has stayed ever since, the country becoming one of his most enduring subjects.

As Hurn explained in a segment of the interview captured in Jaydon Martin's short documentary film, he's not interested in post-production touching-up or tweaking, and describes a camera, regardless of the quality and cost, as essentially a box with a hole in it: what matters is the trace or image that is captured. Developing a signature style is predominantly a question of distinctive subject matter rather than technique. It's a source of immense frustration to him that everyone now has a camera in their pocket but all too often we point it at ourselves; for him, photography should be outward-looking rather than narcissistic, an engagement with the real world beyond ourselves and our own narrow purviews.

The creator of many incredible photographs himself, he regards the "most important" image as being the one taken during a colonoscopy that identified he had cancer of the colon. Not only has photography given Hurn a living, it has also saved his life.


Transcribed highlights of the interview, which appeared in Buzz

My review of the Swaps exhibition

BBC News piece on Hurn

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