5 Things I Learnt From David Hurn / by Simeon Smith

Seminal Welsh photographer, collector and Magnum member, David Hurn, recently donated a huge volume of his work and his collection to Cardiff Museum, and in his honour they opened a permanent photography gallery in the museum. The first exhibition is “Swaps, photos from Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Anders Petersen et al with which Hurn has swapped prints over the years. Yesterday he gave a lecture about the exhibition and his career, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance.

The exhibition guide and my copy of one of David Hurn's books. Now signed on my favourite page.

The exhibition guide and my copy of one of David Hurn's books. Now signed on my favourite page.

Here are a few things I learnt. 

  1. The most important photos in the world are medical. Hurn, now in his 80s, speaks with the confidence of man who’s work has been venerated for decades. With this same confidence, he showed us a picture, blown up on the big screen behind him, of his colon. A photo that saved his life. In the early noughties he was diagnosed with cancer, given a 25% chance of survival, and the photos the helped the medical team save his life he now shows with pride. Radiographers and medical photographers save lives. When the last time my shots of strangers in the street did that?!
  2. Embrace commercial assignments. When Hurn started a Photography course in Newport he was clear: He wanted the course to enable people to get jobs. Rarely, he said, do people go straight into “art” photography, showing at galleries and selling prints for thousands. It’s when curators look back at your whole body of work, commercial and personal, that they’ll see your authorship and unique perspective. 
  3. Learn from the masters. As a young man, when photographers of renown came to the UK, he’d ask their agent if he could follow them around and act as an assistant for them on assignments. He said he learnt so much from these weeks with more experienced photographers, and encouraged us all to learn from the people we respect, and to respect our peers. 
  4. A camera is just a box with a hole in it. Footwear is where it’s at. Hurn said that on many assignments he’d spend 12hrs working on his feet. At that point you don’t care how fancy your camera is, but you need good shoes. This kind wholly practical advice was sprinkled throughout the lecture. Work when you can. Make money when you can. Introduce yourself to people who’s work you respect. Spend as much time taking photographs as you can. Practical advice from someone with the backing of experience. 
  5. The beauty of photography is capturing reality. Photoshop destroys that. Hurn talked about trust, about politics, and about people’s perception of reality. He never edits photos away from reality. In his words: “Stand in front of something and press the button at the right time."