Back to the Beginning

mickyates Art, B&W, Burton on Trent, Colour, Documentary, Falmouth, film, FilmIsNotDead, India, MA, Masters, Original artwork, Photography, Photoshop, Travel, United Kingdom Leave a Comment

As part of my MA, I was asked to review my earliest work and reflect: What do you see in it? Thought I’d post my answers here.

I have to really start at the beginning here. I was a painter (and I wrote poetry). In fact, I wanted to go to Art College, but as a first generation ‘boomer’, I was encouraged instead to do a more useful degree. So, a frustrated artist. I did collages, painted, drew and generally experimented with most things that the 1960s had to offer.

I was (and still am) always open to new visual ideas, reading and discovering as much as I could, and my work at the time shows that.

Mick Yates, Mixed Media, 1967-1968

Frankly, I did not have a lot of disposable cash, so when I managed to upgrade from an old Kodak to a Prinz Mastermatic III 35mm camera, I was delighted.

My Dad had been a lifelong photographer, and I caught the bug, to capture what was around me. Perhaps in a foretaste of my current work, a lot of it was documentary, archival and even had glimpses of my ‘traces’ imagery.

Burton on Trent, 1969

Paying my way through Uni, I was a ‘travelling salesman’, visiting the colliery towns and villages of Derbyshire. I did a photo essay on one such place, Albert Village. Here is a selection:

Albert Village, Derbyshire, 1969

Naturally, I also took family snapshots. But not as many as my dad did. I do think my art training affected my composition.

In 1969/70, I also worked as a photographer for the Leeds Student Newspaper – my first experience of a ‘proper’ camera (Pentax Spotmatic). Here’s the ‘kidnap’ of Dave Allsopp, Engineer’s President, as part of the (successful) anti-Apartheid ‘Stop the Cricket Tour’ Campaign, alongside my contact sheet.

I have all of my negatives and slides, going back to the 1960s. And, happily, now I also have all of Dad’s, from the 1930s onwards.

At some point I will do a proper archive job. I had hoped that would be part of this MA, but sadly it seems against the rules for new work.

Can you find a theme that connects it to the work you make today?

It’s clear that documentary and reporting what is around me is a consistent theme. I could not travel much in those days, so, like many others of my generation, I made do with my immediate surroundings.

I have always been interested in people, but in the sense of seeing them in context. When I could afford to travel, that became a mainstay.

Agra, 1978

It’s only in recent years that I have been doing a lot of portrait work, though still with an environmental slant.

What do you like and dislike about the early work?

I am continually amazed at how often I got the composition ‘right’ in camera, and even the exposure was decent. None of the above are cropped much. Whilst I fully embrace digital, and need it, in fact, for some of my event work, I can see much value in ‘slow photography’.

I can also see that story-telling is very much embedded in how I approach photography, even though my approach to urban settings was almost ‘new topographical’. I guess it was the era of Pop and Conceptual Art!

And, whilst in those early years, black and white was the only way I could create photographs, colour is very important to how I see the world.

The improvement areas are several.

Firstly, I am seeking more intimacy in my images, as discussed in Surfaces and Strategies. I am usually pretty good at connecting and engaging with people, in either street or formal settings. Whilst I still prefer a ‘candid’ style, I do feel intimacy would drive impact.

Second, given that I am focusing on telling stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, I am continuing to learn and experiment with new ways of dealing with aftermath.

Third, I am expanding my portrait repertoire, partly reflecting the ‘intimacy’ point above, and partly because I increasingly enjoy this kind of photography.

What was it about these photographs that made you want to be a photographer?

I think that is a superfluous question – I have always been a photographer.

A better question might be ‘why do I want to get better’?

Because that is in my nature.

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I posted this on FaceBook, and got seem interesting feedback. In particular, James Kezman noted:

You have a great eye for textures in both your painting and in your photography. The monochrome images are a feast for the eyes with contrasting textures and geometries — the rugged earthiness of the open pit mine versus the smooth towers of the buildings beyond; The lovely organic lead in to the tree contrasted with the harsh metallic buildings behind; The curves of the dilapidated car versus the tumbledown bricks. Good stuff. It is interesting to see how you moved from urban/rural landscape to a more figurative style, like in your paintings. Seems like you found a way to meld the two facets of your art. Oh and I love the surrealist elements in your paintings/collages. Did you ever do any photo collages?

My reply:

James, thanks for taking the time to comment. Would you mind if I added this as an addendum on my post? I think I have always been fascinated by ‘layers’ in images (and stories for that matter). That said I am very conscious of pursuing rather rigorous compositions and layouts – too formal in fact. Funnily enough, when I started getting back into serious photography, I felt dissatisfied with the lack of ‘humanity’ in my work – hence I consciously did a lot of street and portrait work. Going full circle, I now see that we can visualise humanity in less obvious ways – hence some of my latest work on the MA with traces and negatives. Maybe I am simply going back to where I started?

And, should have said I did some photo collage … a few here … Psych Sixties

And, from James:

Please do, Mick! It’s always good to circle back to where you started in whatever art it is that you are pursing. I pull out my “Introduction to Photography” work binder about once as year to remind me of where I started. As you know, art is a continual process — you build upon what you’ve learned, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve lived. Sometimes we get stuck and try something new. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but it all goes into that big pot we call creativity. So, keep digging and keep creating!

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)