David Hurn – A Life in Pictures

mickyates B&W, Book, Documentary, Leica, Photography, Street Leave a Comment

Just finally catching up with the excellent documentary on David Hurn from the BBC. It only has a few hours left to be available – and outside the UK it can’t be viewed. So here is a version from dailymotion:

The video gives great insight into David’s working practices, and especially his ability to engage at an emotional level with his subjects. He’s clearly a bit of a cheeky chappie, even now, at 84 years old, so that helps!

David was filmed for BBC’s Monitor programme by his friend Ken Russell, in 2017. As he was getting started, he was in a creative circle including Sir Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths. David reflects on how his practice grew, his younger self and the Swinging Sixties.


David Hurn. Fans eying Ringo Starr. The Beatles during filming of ‘A Hard Days Night’. The Beatles film was primarily shot on a moving train. London, England. G.B. 1964. © David Hurn | Magnum Photos

The Sixties is, of course, ‘my era’, so it is delightful to go through his images of that time in the 2015 book, The 1960s: Photographed by David Hurn.

From the book:

“Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as they are.” (pg 9)

His life’s work, though, is much more than about a period in time. David covers so many of the people and events of the past 60 years. His work ranged from portraits and movie sets, pop culture to newsworthy events. The Beatles, Aberfan, Grosvenor Square demonstrations, Barbarella. It’s all there.

‘You shouldn’t be giving your subjects many instructions. It’s a case of sitting down and talking to them, to the point where they can be themselves, rather than a person who is self-consciously aware of having their photograph taken’. (pg 200)

Looking at pictures he took at events, it’s clear that the anonymous participants were just as interesting to David as the main attractions.

Whilst design is not the ‘end game’ for David, patterns are certainly intrinsic to his work.

‘You need a good sense of geometry when you are taking pictures in a situation like this’. (pg 88)

For example, on the street, he gets into an interesting space, and then is very patient in waiting for things to unfold in front of him. This is a classic: The Promenade at Tenby (1974).

Picture from National Museum of Wales

Martin Parr described it as ‘the perfect picture‘ in the video. I am not sure I agree with that, as there are a few overlaps in the image which slightly annoy – but it is damn good.

In many ways, I would consider him ‘the street photographer’s photographer’, amongst other possible titles we could bestow.

Back to the video, David says photography is:

‘ … like a game, trying to capture in one picture how you feel about something’.

And, whilst he says he is not good at posing people, he does

‘… just go up to them, take an interest in them and then take a picture’.

A photographer:

‘… gets right inside the story, gets accepted as part of it, stands in the right place at the right time, and presses the shutter’.

He also notes that a good picture can beat propaganda every time (the story of the Russian soldier buying a hat for his wife).

The video prompted me to re-read his book with Bill Jay, On Being a Photographer (1996).

It is full of practical and pithy wisdom – and not without its humour. I had to smile when I rediscovered this quote:

‘I was discussing [my frustration with photography academics] with the chair of a University Philosophy department when she stated that most academics in photography of her acquaintance would not even pass the interview to become a beginning student on a rigorous philosophy course!’ (pg 74)

More seriously, I think his attitude is not anti-academic, but more pro-action. David goes to great lengths to explain how he works, how much practice we all need in our craft, the important of the apparatus, and the value of a well-defined personal approach to working with subjects and scenes.

Both he and Bill Jay and accomplished photographers and educators. I found David’s focus on the importance of a perfectly exposed contact sheet fundamental to his work – to be able to look at the totality of a body of work, and to make both processing and editing decisions as a result. That of course is still possible with film, and I imagine we all do it, though not as rigorously as David. We can do something similar by printing from Lightroom – but how many of us actually do?

I also greatly admire his dedication to print swaps. He has amassed an amazing collection, essentially for free, and this is now being made available at the National Museum of Wales. That’s a project I should be more active on.

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Hurn, David & Havlin, Laura. 2017. Behind the Image: David Hurn’s Beatlemania. Available at https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/behind-image-david-hurns-beatlemania/. (Accessed 23/09/18)

Hurn, David, Doggett, Peter & Nourmand, Tony. 2015. The 1960s: Photographed by David Hurn. London: Reel Art Press.

Jay, Bill & Hurn, David. 1996. On Being a Photographer. Available at: http://www.greenacre.info/Photography/On%20Being%20a%20Photographer.pdf. (Accessed 2/09/2018).

David Hurn at National Museum of Wales. (Accessed 23/09/18)

David Hurn on YouPic. (Accessed 23/09/18)

Bill Jay – Occam’s Razor

mickyates Book, Photography Leave a Comment

Bill Jay (1940-2009) is a favourite writer, partly because of his acute insight into photographers (as opposed to photography), but mainly because of his love of making things clear and writing in plain English.

I am referring here to Occam’s Razor: An outside-in-view of Contemporary Photographer (1992). It ought to be on every photographer’s reading list, especially as it is a fun read. I took it on holiday, recently, and re-read it.

… all good photographers have a deep commitment to, and involvement with, their subjects, and through photography they are communicating their understanding and passion to others.’ (pg 18)

… a body of work by a photographer begins to reflect back to the viewer the author’s relationship not only to the subject but also to a unique life-attitude.’ (pg 19)

Formal education (in photography) has a lot to answer for. We have legitimized, sanitized, academized the medium until we are left with issues not substance, critical stances not action .. ‘ (pg 20)

Grant Scott, of the United Nations of Photography, wrote about Jay on the premiere of a movie about his life (2018 – Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay).

‘Evangelical in his zeal in sharing his passion for the medium and a mercurial force of energy when it came to his teaching and lecturing, he ignited the fire beneath British photography in 1968 with his editorship of Creative Camera magazine and fanned its flames through his self-created Album magazine’.

Jay was, by all accounts, ‘as interested in photographers as he was in photography‘ (Hopkinson, Guardian, 2009).

Where did the title come from? William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar in the 14th century. He wrote the lex parsimoniae, or ‘the law of briefness’. In Latin:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. Translated: More things should not be used than are necessary.

Jay addresses young photographers, to whom he suggests that “each photograph you take is like a pebble dropped into the pond of consciousness, its never-ending ripples lapping upon everything.” (pg 11).

The book is illustrated with Jay’s beautiful montages of Victorian wood engravings.

Occam’s Razor includes disparate yet always interesting essays, although it can sometimes be a bit superficial (in a couple of the interviews). For example, the interview with Diane Arbus. She was very reluctant to speak, though by answering an odd question Jay gets her to open up and relax. She talks about how long she pondered about whether any given image was worth putting on public show, although how she decided wasn’t made clear.

The most vivid images from the essay are, however, that Jay notes Arbus as wearing ‘ … a leather miniskirt. It was quite sexy …’ (pg 54), and the foul tasting jelly Arbus asked Jay to try to eat. Both are typical of his interest in photographers as people, though frankly add little to photographic enlightenment.

On the other hand, Jay’s critique of criticism is withering. In the essay Madonna Made Me Do It, he notes:

‘Copy down a paragraph (any one will do) from a current critical theorist. Memorize it. Then, in front of the mirror, practice a halting, stumbling delivery with screwed-up face until you can recite it as if ther words were being laboriously dredged up from deep in your psyche with gut-wrenching sincerity’. (pg 156)

Perhaps more helpfully, Jay notes that considering the photographer, the work itself, its place in photography’s history, its context in the prevailing culture and so forth are important to any critique.

And here is a tasty quote, from his conversation with Robert Capa:

Jay: Books and movies are always depicting photojournalists as hustlers and voyeurs. Is that fair?

Capa: No, of course not. it is typical liberal namely-pamby understatement. Photographers are also paranoid, aggressive and utterly selfish. Like Sontag said; all photographers are sublimated rapists and murderers. (pg 117)

The essay entitled ‘Threshold – The Disturbing Image‘ is an important contribution to the conversation around what is and is not acceptable to photograph and exhibit.

Jay distinguishes between disturbing, meaning pushing a viewer to the ‘limit of emotional acceptance‘ (pg 33). And disturbing, in the sense that ‘the image … rocks the status quo‘. He notes that:

‘… the closer we can approach a survival-threatening situation [embracing emotional disturbance], even vicariously through an image … the more we feel alive’. (pg 35)

And:

‘Educated, comparatively affluent, middle-class Americans have become so comfortable, thank God, in their ascendancy over hand-to-mouth survival that they are more easily disturbed and shocked by the raw crudity of life outside fortress USA, or even within it …’ (pg 37)

That is why bloated corpses floating in the Ganges disturb a Western audience, yet are commonplace sights on the river’s banks. Jay also notes that, whilst editor of Creative Camera, he received a furious letter from a woman upset by ‘Two Shells‘ by Edward Weston (1927).

The woman was offended by the images ‘sexual nature’ (pg 38). A personal disturbance.

Jay goes on to write about Robert Frank‘s Americans, which disturbed the status quo via its social commentary on a ‘hidden side’ of America..

His conclusions are clear and practical.

‘I have tried to indicate that disturbing images are inevitable – and that they are always healthy. even those that fill us with disgust and abhorrence can indicate we care about moral values, that we are part of an upsurge in human consciousness. They act, paradoxically, as indicators of etc state of our society’. (pg 43)

And Jay remains optimistic:

‘While images still have the capacity to disturb us, I have hopse for both the human race and etc medium of photography’. (pg 43)

I also found his comments on the (still controversial) ‘Family of Man‘ exhibition very insightful. This was staged by Edward Steichen for MoMa in 1955. Critics noted it as being overly sugary, epitomising an idealised (America?) way of life, rather than truly getting into the multi cultural and diverse nature of humanity across the globe – including its pain and its problems. In essence, the exhibition suffered the challenges of all documentary photography, and highlighted the curation process as a constant battle. Over two million photographs were submitted from across the world.

‘During 1954, the two million photographs were edited down to 10,000 possibles, and finally cut to 503 images, representing 273 photographers (163 American) from 68 countries’. (pg 87)

Jay points out that everywhere that the exhibition was shown across the world, it got record audiences. It was shown at 69 venues in 37 countries, as well as numerous US cities. Jay takes the view that it was exactly what the public wanted, even if it did not meet the critic’s needs. In the context of the post-World War II years, a little hope and positiveness went a long way.

‘The Family of Man is a microcosm of all the issues which have haunted photography throughout its history. And that is why the exhibition is so unsettling to photographers. To ‘the man in the street’ these issues are irrelevant … perhaps Steichen was right. Perhaps his ‘devoted love and faith in man’ was not so naive after all. (pg 97)

Jay’s conversations with W. Eugene Smith were poignant and inspirational. Smith was suicidal, and crying out for help in long distance phone calls. In a January, 1970 letter to Jay, Smith writes:

‘If I could beat this depression – if I could fall in love – if at least someone [were] around to make me eat semi-healthfully – if I could get six months rest’. (pg 113)

Well, Smith met his future, Japanese wife Aileen shortly afterwards. From Wikipedia:

‘[They] lived in Minamata, both a fishing village and a “one company” industrial city in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan from 1971 to 1973. There they created a long-term photo-essay on Minamata disease, the effects of mercury poisoning caused by a Chisso factory discharging heavy metals into water sources around Minamata.

The essay was published in 1975 as ‘Minamata, Words and Photographs’ by W.E. Smith and A.M. Smith.

Its centrepiece photograph and one of his most famous works, ‘Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath’, taken in December 1971, and published a few months after the 1972 attack, drew worldwide attention to the effects of Minamata disease. The photograph depicts a mother cradling her severely deformed, naked daughter in a traditional Japanese bathing chamber. This has been withdrawn from circulation in accordance with the parents’ wishes’. 

In the process of creating Minamata, Smith was severely beaten up by company employees. But, he

‘… was unbowed. He was capable of further work of humanistic power and social relevancy’. (pg 114)

Smith finished his defining work, and died in 1978.

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Cham, Jorge. 2009. Core Principles in Research. Available at: http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1237. (accessed 2/9/2018).

Greenough, Sarah. 2009. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington: National Gallery of Art/Steidl.

Jay, Bill. 1992. Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazerelli Press.

Hopkinson, Amanda. 2009. Bill Jay, Photographer & Writer. Obituary. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/aug/05/bill-jay-obituary. (Accessed: 16/8/2018).

Scott, Grant. 2018. The Photographic Life of Bill Jay. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-43567458. (Accessed 2/9/2018).

Smith, W. Eugene. 2013. The Big Book. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smith, W. Eugene & Smith, A.M. 1975. Minamata. New York: Alskog-Sensorium.