Even if you haven’t heard of David Hurn, you probably know his photographs. A member of Magnum Photos since 1967, he photographed the rich and famous of 1960s swinging London, before moving out to Wales in the 1970s. He still lives there now, a youthful and extremely perceptive 76-year-old. His recent exhibition Passing Time brought together photographs from his 55-year career to Third Floor Gallery, a space I cofounded with Maciej Dakowicz and Bartosz Nowicki.
We invited members of the public to curate the show, pairing images shot before 1986 with images from after the same year, and in the same spirit of democracy, asked friends on Facebook and Flickr what they would like to ask Hurn. Perhaps spurred on by rummaging through his online archive, many of them wanted to know what his own favourite photograph is. It sounds like a classic icebreaker, but for Hurn it was no simple question.
“If you wake up in the morning full of joy, you choose a joyful picture,” he says. “But it's a bit like having children. Which child do you like? I guess you like the one that is not being naughty at that time. Very occasionally you take a picture that sticks to your memory accurately of a moment that was significant for you personally. If you find that it then does evoke the memory, and it is of a moment that you think is of some kind of importance, then it is a good picture.”
Hurn clearly remembers and cherishes one photograph he took at a party thrown by the MG car manufacturers, for example, showing an old man suited, booted and playing with a flying balloon while at a dinner table, the other guests oblivious to his unrestrained joy, “The older I get the more I like it,” smiles Hurn. “It tells me that you don't die when you are 70.”
Age and the passing of time fascinate Hurn and while most of us find the idea of growing older intimidating, he’s enjoying the freedoms it offers. “When you get older you don't care much what people say,” he laughs. “I don't mind now saying that something is not very good if I dislike it.”
One of his famous bugbears is pretension and the obscure academic language sometimes used to back it up. He says he’s proud to call himself a photographer not and artist and that he’s wary of academic “bullshit”, despite having set up one of the UK’s first documentary photography courses. “To me so much photographic writing is designed to exclude people rather than include,” he says. “After all photography is a visual medium which is hugely emotionally understandable by the great majority of people and certainly has wonderful historical value.
“I like functional photography,” he continues. “For me, the best landscape photography is the early American landscapes, where they were working for the railway or working for the Geological Society. People like O'Sullivan and Jackson who after all had all worked for Brady in the American Civil War. It is 'This is the terrain you have to cut your railway through' work, and that brings the kind of functionality and reality that I think photography deals with very well.
“Weegee was a working photographer who got in and did it in the same way that Walker Evans was a working photographer who went and did it and Diane Arbus was a working photographer who went in and did it. And then you look back at their work and it appears that they were great artists.”
In fact Weegee is Hurn’s favourite photographer, a press hound who specialised in shooting crime scenes in 1930s and 40s New York with a massive Speedgraphic camera and a bulb-powered flashgun. “I can never get to grips how he could ever be so extraordinary, partly because I find the subject matter so difficult to deal with,” says Hurn. “It's absolutely extraordinary to do this sort of tough, violent subject matter, and at the same time get the geometry, the composition, so extraordinarily perfect every time. And to do that with using a very bulky 5x4 camera with which you only had a couple of sheets of film – I just it find miraculous.
Hurn has a keen eye for technology, and says new inventions such as the iPad, cameraphones, and social networking are changing the face of photography. Even so, he’s happy to leave others to work out what to do with them, and how to make money from them. “I have no desire to sit down and learn how to master all this technology because if you are going to be a front runner in this new technology, you gotta know how to use it,” he says. “It’s like starting from scratch and saying ‘I'm going to be a concert pianist’. You don't do it by suddenly saying ‘I'll just get a piano and honky-tonk on it’.
“What nobody can do now is tell you how do you put all those bits together to make something that somebody can make a living out of. I don't think anybody has found that yet, they are all pretending that they know and they are going off in different directions but few people are doing well out of it."
Hurn was initially sceptical about asking members of the public to curate his Passing Time show, modestly insisting that no one would find the time to do it. In the end 150 pairs of images were submitted in two days and Hurn was so impressed he completely replaced his own first selection. In a documentary produced by Daylight Magazine, he jokes it was a sad reflection on his own editing skills. One thing he was adamant about was that the exhibition should show new work, though, as he’s keen to prove that he’s still making work.
“If you're not careful people think you've died, and you're no longer photographing,” he says. “People think ‘He can't be, he's seventy six, how can he be photographing well?', because young people think the old don't have sex or take photographs.”
Of course Hurn recognises the fact he can’t photograph three venues a day any more, but he’s set himself a personal goal to keep going longer than legendary Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz, whom he accompanied to Hyde Park on a photo trip at the age of 92. Hurn is planning a new series on the welsh landscape, followed by a project on the village where he lives. “It means that I don't have to walk that far because the village is not that big, and I'm not going to have problems with access because I know everybody,” he says. “My problem will be the opposite - how to limit the material when there is so much to photograph.”
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