How Photographer David Hurn Captures Sublime Moments in Mundane Life
Mar 27 2014
After stumbling into photojournalism in the 50s, David Hurn acheived fame by photographing the Beatles and other pop-culture icons of the 60s. The British photographer also made much of the original artwork for Barbarella and the James Bond films, and shot fashion for publications like Harper's Bazaar. But that stuff was just a day job that allowed him to pursue his true passion—photographing sublime moments in mundane life.
I recently talked to Hurn about wedding photography, colonoscopies, and the importance of not getting "mystical" about taking pictures of stuff.
VICE: Compared with a lot of photographers, the type of work you've done through your career varies hugely: You've gone from war photography to documenting the pop stars of the 60s to documentary work and street photography. Did you consciously set out to try new things?
David Hurn: It wasn’t that I wanted to try something new every now and then. When I started, in the mid 50s, there weren’t galleries or anything like that. If you were involved in photography you were either a wedding photographer, a science photographer, or you were involved in that word journalism. So that’s what we all did. I wanted to be a vet, or an archaeologist, but I had no qualifications at all. I was in the army doing national service when I first picked up a camera, and realized I quite enjoyed it. I was a shy person and photography’s rather good for shy people; you hide behind something and have an excuse to be somewhere. If someone asks what you are doing, rather than crumpling and jabbering insanely, you say, "Oh, I am a photographer."
So when did it get serious?
I had one of those moments that change one’s life: I saw a photo in a copy of Picture Post. In the army we were led to believe that all Russians ate their children, but I saw this photo of a Russian army officer buying his wife a hat in a department store. And I started to cry. It moved me immensely. My father had been away during the war, and when he came back the first thing he did was take my mother to Howells [a department store] in Cardiff and buy her a hat. Suddenly I realized that I believed much more in the photo than I did in any propaganda. I realized that photography really can move people, just by being accurate.
How did that moment transform itself into a career?
I decided there and then that was what I wanted to do. I left the army. It was the mid 50s, and the Hungarian revolution was starting. My instinct was that if I went there I would have something to photograph. So the initial work I did, which I suppose you would say was to do with violence, was simply done because it seemed a good entry to something I knew very little about.
Frankly, I didn’t like it very much. Being shot at has never been my idea of a holiday experience. I got lucky, met some LIFE magazine reporters and followed them. I got some photos published in LIFE and distributed to Picture Post and the Observer. I learned very early that it’s better to start at the top than the bottom. From the top, you can cling on desperately—if you start at the bottom, it’s a long climb.
So your start in photography was in conflict reportage, but you quickly left that behind—is that right?
The reality was that I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Partly because around me were people like Don McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, Ian Berry, and all of them, and they were far more interested in the political aspect than I was. So I had to find my niche. I started to work for, primarily, American magazines. I wasn’t making any money and by chance got into that rather actor-y, arts-y world. I met an actor named Richard Johnson, photographed him in ‘6'68 or something, which led to me covering a film, where I met a publicist… It’s all this sort of networking thing. The publicist got me to work with him on big films. But all of these things were very peripheral to my life. I did the original posters for the Bond films and most of the iconic stuff for Barbarella, and most of the original stuff for the Beatles’ films. But they were all things that were done because it was necessary in order to do what I really wanted to do, which was observe the world.
Commercial work was a means to an end, then?
Yes, absolutely. In 1970, when I came back to Wales I then virtually never took an assignment again. I worked on my own projects. That’s not to say that if a magazine wanted to pay for work I was doing I would say no. But there is a difference.
Do you think that too many photographers aren’t as open-minded and malleable as that? That they are unwilling to do commercial work or see it as conflicting with their ideals?
I think it’s one of the bad things that happens during university or a college education. A lot of the people who teach photography have a very mystical idea of what photography should be. They don’t tell the students that the first thing to do as a photographer is not die of malnutrition. If you do, you aren’t going to shoot many pictures. Part of the trick is [finding a balance] between doing what you want and making a living. If someone wants you, early in your career, to shoot a wedding, you should go and shoot the wedding. You can learn a lot from shooting a wedding. You work to a script. You need a picture of the bride and groom. It’s no good shooting a bunch of flowers and saying, "These flowers are lovely, they give me the feeling of spring," or something—it doesn’t work. You learn from doing anything well, whether it's what you want to do or not. Stay alive, concentrate on learning, and when you get the chance to do what you want, you will have the [skill] to do it well. Photography is basically a job. Like any job, you have to understand it—the context, the audience.
Do you there's a level of pretentiousness around photography?
There’s an incredible amount of it about certain types of photography. We hear that if there’s a fire in a house, the first thing people grab is not the Cartier-Bresson on the wall—it's the wedding album. I think that should be discussed more. What it means is that something as simple as a wedding photo is incredibly important to people. If you are going to shoot a wedding, shoot it well. It’s an honorable thing to do—in many ways far more important than somebody taking photos without even observing anything. Photography is about observing. The world is wonderful, go and record it—record what you find wonderful and hope that someone else is going to like it. And maybe hope that the person who likes it likes it enough to pay you for it.
That’s the other side of your work, and really the main part of your life’s work, it seems: Observing everyday life, mostly in small towns, be it in Arizona or Wales. Whithout sounding rude, is it about "small towns," normality, maybe even banality?
I once wrote something: "Life, as it unfolds in front of the camera, is full of such complexity, such wonder, such surprise, that I find it unnecessary to create new realities." Now, that’s rather pompous. But what I meant is it’s more pleasure for me to record things as they are. I always wanted to be a recorder of life as I see it. When I came back to Wales I was fascinated by the word culture. I didn’t really know what people meant by it. But I decided that if I went around Wales, and maybe made some books—one on the places people live, one on the way people live, one on the landscape they live in, and so on—then maybe I could eventually come to understand what that culture is. And that’s basically what I do. I enjoy photographing the mundane.
And that's the work you continue to do today?
I am 80 now, and I tend to be very tenacious, so when I sat down and realized I was getting older, slower, I thought: What can I do that will last me another ten years of working? I was luckily reading a John Updike book, which I enjoyed, and there was a quote in there: "Giving the mundane its beautiful due." I love that.
I decided then that one of the major projects I would do is photograph my village. That’s what I do now. It's so interesting—you go to the Women’s Book Society and see eight women discussing a book they have read. I find it incredibly interesting but incredibly difficult, too. It’s very mundane. And if you aren’t careful you start to play tricks to overcome that, with a new lens, or Photoshop, or whatever, but actually what you have to do is end up with photos that are basically boring—where the only interest comes from small details and gestures.
So that’s what interests you—normality?
What I am interested in? I don’t really care in a way. You can be a wedding photographer, a war photographer, or someone who calls themselves an "artist"—though nothing flabbergasts me more, whenever you ask someone what they mean by "artist," they take it as an attack. But if you called yourself a "plumber," I know what you mean. If they want to be an artist, fine.
The point is that, for me, anything is interesting as long as it’s done well. I mean, if you want a hierarchy of importance then the most important picture in most people’s lives is often taken by a camera up their arse. You can’t get more down to earth than that. If you want a hierarchy, then colonoscopy or radiography is probably the most important photography there is. The rest is pretty mundane in comparison—but that’s also not what it’s about. It is about a person trying to show someone else what they are personally interested in, in a way that the viewer might not have seen it. Take Weegee’s photos—I love them. I don’t want to be a press photographer, but I see those photos and I just marvel that somebody with a box with a hole in the front could do what he did.
Scroll down for more of David Hurn's photos.
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