I came into photography in the 1970s, and completely missed the great input that David Hurn made into creative photography in the UK in the 1960s, meeting him for the first time in the early 1980s, when I had a short argument with him in the questions following a talk he gave on one of his shows.
The show wasn’t one of his better efforts, and his reply to my question appeared to me to be entirely based on commercial rather than artistic criteria, so I’ve perhaps never warmed to the man as I should, though I do have his Wales: Land of My Father (2000) on the main bookshelf in my living room (along with a volume by one of the many photographers whose career was intimately bound to his, Josef Koudelka.)
Had I started in photography ten years earlier I might have got to know him better, and if I had been ten years younger I would certainly have yearned to attend the course that he ran from 1973-90, the School of Documentary Photography at the Gwent College of Higher Education in Newport, Wales.
David Hurn is now 74, and his latest book, Writing The Picture with poet John Fuller was published by Seren on June 5th 2010. You can read more about his remarkable life in a feature by Graham Harrison on Photo Histories, where there is also a link to the book, as well as to the title sequence from Barbarella in which a space-suited Jane Fonda weightlessly disrobes.
Harrison attributes former student Dillon Bryden as stating that Davids course engendered the work ethic and a very particular code of understanding, and although in many ways a strength, particularly in giving its students a way of making a living, it was perhaps also a weakness, pushing them down a particular route. But it was certainly a great shame when this vocationally oriented course was lost in the scramble for university and degree status.
In his piece, Harrison writes “David Hurn says the art establishment in Britain remains staggeringly snobby about photography, and is particularly resistant to photojournalism and documentary photography.” Despite the work of Hurn and others this remains only too true. Although he and other photographers did serve on the Arts Council in various ways, photography has never really got a serious look-in, though for a year or so in the 1970s it seemed it just might.
I’ve always felt it summed up the situation pretty well that, until 2001, the only money I had ever got from the Arts Council had been a couple of small payments from the Poetry budget. And in 2001 the money came from ‘The Year of the Artist‘ and again was not specifically for photography.
You can see some of David Hurn’s pictures on his Magnum page, and also worth reading is a piece on Hurn by the late Bill Jay, another vital figure in British photography in the late 1960s through Creative Camera and Album magazines. This starts:
While still in my 20s, I showed David Hurn my photographs, the results of more than seven years of struggle to be a photographer. It took him about 30 seconds to look through the lot and deliver his judgment: boring. Derivative, he said. You wont make it.
We have been friends ever since.
British photography might have had a rather different story had Jay not, as Harrison relates, been turned down for a post at the National Portrait Gallery.