Friday, May 01, 2020

"I'm a photographer. I take pictures"

Always keen to give credit to his influences and those from whose expertise and wisdom he has directly benefited, David Hurn has admitted his considerable debt to Bruce Davidson. When he heard that the US photographer was coming to the UK in 1960 for a two-month assignment for The Queen magazine, Hurn eagerly volunteered his services as an assistant - and was shocked to discover that Davidson was only a year older, which inspired him to up his own game. From the American, he told a packed audience in Cardiff in February, he learned the value of patience and perseverance, the art of shooting series of pictures rather than taking individual images, and the necessity of a good-quality pair of shoes capable of withstanding a lot of wear.

Over the course of that relatively short visit, Davidson created a stunning portrait of the nation at a particularly interesting point in its history. Speaking to Huck's Eva Clifford in connection with an exhibition of the photos in London earlier this year, Davidson said: "It was a time of transition, especially in London. Since it had been seriously bombed it was rebuilding and people were recovering from the trauma of war. There was a sense of fragility, but there was also a strong, emerging youth culture coming forward."

However, like Hurn, Davidson mostly made his name taking pictures in the country of his birth, focusing particularly on the marginalised, people who were not usually considered suitable subjects for photography (youth gangs in Brooklyn, for instance, and those at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s). Like Hurn, he sees himself merely as an acute observer of life. Like Hurn, he readily concedes that good fortune has helped him along the way (in his case, getting to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris and then, spotting him on the street in New York, finding himself invited into Magnum's inner circle). And like Hurn, he is now in his advancing years, able to reflect back on a long and distinguished career and an impressive body of work.

One invitation to do so came in June last year, in the form of an interview with the New Yorker's Chris Wiley, during which Davidson memorably described himself as "an outsider on the inside". Not only does Wiley's article reveal how he first fell in love with photography and offer insights into some of his most celebrated series, Jonno Rattman's accompanying images grant the nosy reader a tour of his New York apartment, with its ramshackle furniture, copious archives and makeshift-cum-permanent bathroom darkroom.

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