The Wisdom of David Hurn
Having been to a lecture by Magnum photographer David Hurn this week and inspired by his story and wise words, it was only natural that I was eager to put this new found knowledge into practice. It was fortunate then that my good friend and fellow photo enthusiast Paul Williams was due a visit this weekend. On Saturday morning, I suggested we head down the coast to the wetlands near the Aberthaw power station and mine its rich seam of photo opportunity.
To David Hurn it is all about subject matter and it is this that great photographers talk of when they chew the fat. It is not about the gear or highfalutin artistic concepts, but what would make a good subject. For him it was the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 when he found himself one of the few photographers who made it on to the streets of Budapest. He learnt to follow the journalists and photograph what they found – thus his name was made.
He talks as you would expect from a man who has survived and prospered in the tough world of commercial photography. His passion is clear, as at eighty he was still able to hold forth and enthrall for over two hours. He put up a list of the friends who had slept on his floor in the sixties and it read like a list of photographic icons.
He recalled how he found his ‘tinsel town’ niche in 60’s magazines and the importance that networking and luck had played in his life. And how he was asked to do the stills for a small film which happened to be Dr No, the beginning of the James Bond franchise. He realised that success came from hard work and the instinct to come up with a subject that might excite a Picture Editor. He had a brief period taking fashion shots while also working for magazines like Nova and Holiday. He reminded the many students in the audience that WH Smith still has over 3000 magazines on sale. He also suggested thinking globally about where your work might sell; his own work with the Nursing Times has been used in over nine countries.
He spoke of those photographers now regarded as artists who were just trying to make a living when they did their great work. His best advice though was that photography was simply made up of two things – first where you stand and second when you push the shutter; get those right and the rest will follow.
He believes that the greats in any field need not fear the constriction of a brief but be able to satisfy its demand while maintaining their own unique authorship. His advice was not to copy anyone but find your own vision and learn from the great, especially their contact sheets. It is from them you will learn how they came to capture that great image. It is rarely with one shot, but with a chosen background worked at over several frames until by luck or judgement the elements come right in the frame. It was a marvelous talk, possibly his last in the UK, and I feel privileged to have been in the audience.
The wetlands proved not to be the rich seam I had hoped, but Paul and I spent a pleasant couple of hours clicking away. We then returned for lunch on Penarth Pier and a visit to the rather wonderful Ragnar Kjartansson ‘The Visitors’ installation at the Turner House Galley. I highly recommend the installation though my photographs might suggest it’s not for everybody. My own ‘something and nothing style/organising the chaos’ should, I feel, keep me safe from the pressures of commercial photography for a while yet and I’m ever hopeful that one day I’ll figure out where to stand and when to push the shutter.