Hurn’s Swinging ‘60s
Magnum legend David Hurn recalls the time when all the great photographers used to gather at his place to talk shop, and tells us what it was like to cover the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks
DAVID HURN is one of the longest-standing members of Magnum. He’s also a member of another exclusive, though unofficial, club: the rat pack of professional photographers’ professional photographers. His flat in London used to be an international hub of great photographers, models, and actors, and everyone remembers his Beatles photos, Bond posters, and the iconic Barbarella shots of Jane Fonda. The co-author of the highly-respected On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide, Hurn has also published two out of a series of three books on Welsh culture, and now a stunning retrospective, The 1960s: Photographed by David Hurn.
Why did you decide to publish a book on the 1960s at this point in time?
“One of the things I wanted to do, particularly with my pictures from the 60s, is to try to get the stories together. I always worked on my own ideas, I very rarely took assignments, so I might pitch to Vogue an idea of the last Queen Charlotte’s Ball, where debutantes knelt in front of the Queen. Obviously, the Queen got bored with that so she gave up coming, and then they all, bizarrely, kneeled down in front of a big cake. When I shot that, they probably only used one picture. So you’ve got a set that you really like and nobody ever sees them.
The same goes for the current affairs stories like Churchill’s funeral and the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demonstration.”
You’ve also included your showbiz images, but these were only a means to an end – is that correct?
“Yes. I was never particularly interested in current affairs. My idea of a good day out is the sheepdog trials in the Welsh mountains, or ballroom dancing championships. Life to me is so extraordinary and bizarre. I used to love going down to Herne Bay to photograph the sun seekers. You could see a real? cross-section of society there. But if you do that, there’s no chance of making a living. So the easiest way to make a living is to do something that pays you more, and gives you time to do projects that you speculate on. And sometimes the things you speculate on do incredibly well. In my case, all my pictures were shot with a magazine in mind, because back in the 60s there weren’t any galleries.
“The idea of anybody calling themselves an artist was silly, because there was nowhere to hang your art. The first galleries didn’t come until the 1970s. But you discover that a definition of art is anything an art gallery can sell. It sounds cynical, but I think it’s a pretty accurate definition. So suddenly a
whole lot of stuff that was photographed with one purpose, to go into magazines, ends up on a gallery wall and is sold as art.”
What was your life like in London, in the 1960s?
“I lived in this very big flat in Bayswater that was rent-controlled, at a time when gangsters like Peter Rachman and Mandy Rice-Davies were trying to evict existing tenants and bring in people from outside who weren’t protected by tenancy rights. Magazine photography had always been the lowest kind of photography, so all these poor photographers who came from America used to sleep in my flat.
All sorts of famous photographers stayed there, and then other people realised it was a fun place to be.
We used to go out for dinner every night in the local restaurant, Bistingo in Queensway. All these photographers would go out and talk about photography, which was lovely. It seemed then that there wasn’t this gulf between different types of photography; I remember this wonderful conversation between Avedon talking about fashion pictures for Harper’s Bazaar and Marc Riboud talking about the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land.
You got the feeling back then that photography was photography; it wasn’t divided up into genres and ranked according to importance.”
Did all these great photographers deliberately build their own public images?
“It was much less ‘me, me, me,’ and more orientated towards subject matter. The photographer was not important. But when you see the great photographers, they have authorship. It’s not artificial. If you look at the pictures by Cartier-Bresson, you can tell that they’re not by Koudelka or McCullin. Most people who talk about hierarchies, they all look like each other. So by definition they can’t be very good.”
Why do you think photography has become more divided now?
“I have no idea why, but I could speculate that it’s to do with the way photography is taught now. It’s very academic, which in my opinion has nothing to do with shooting pictures. When I started, I was in the army; Don McCullin was in the RAF. People dived in, and we were all in our early twenties when we started shooting pictures.”
Do you stay in touch with the celebrities you used to hang out with back then?
“I did stay in touch with Ringo for quite a long time, and like all those things, it dissipates away. It’s one of the sad things about photography. The wonderful thing about photography is that you have to be there to do it. And even if you see somebody for a day, you become close with them. It’s part of how one gets pictures of people. But then you move on to the next
one, and you suddenly find that this person that you really liked, you’ll never see again. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Why did you pack up and move to Wales?
“Living in London has always been expensive, and I knew that I was established enough to be able to function anywhere. It’s so much cheaper to live in Wales that I could drop all the fashion photography. I didn’t have to work on movies any more, which was quite fun to do, but didn’t produce the sort of pictures I particularly wanted.”
What motivated you to start the documentary photography course in Newport?
“I was asked to start a photography course, and I said I’d do it if it was possible to set up a course that offered no qualifications – because the second the course offers qualifications, there are rules about what you have to study, and none of these help you shoot pictures. The day they decided that the course was going to become a BA course, I left, because I knew it was going to be a disaster. It meant that all sorts of things would be written into the course, which I thought would be a distraction.
At best, it would take up time from them going out shooting pictures. They’d be sitting around talking about the theory of left-handed photography with red hair, or space, or ‘truth’.”
You were in Paris during the recent terrorist attacks. What was your experience?
“Paris Photo closed down, and I desperately tried to get out on to the streets like the other photographers. But at my age you walk fast, because running is beyond my capability. It was like Magnum had suddenly become like a family. I haven’t had that feeling with Magnum for quite some time. When you cover something like the Paris attacks, which happened over a weekend, you rely on all the staff coming in, and they were there. Nobody asked them to – they just arrived.
“And it relies on the photographers working out among themselves who’s going to go where. I’m not used to using an iPhone in that way, but every ten minutes we were getting an email saying, ‘Something is happening in this street.’ It sounds like a terrible thing to say under the circumstances, but I hadn’t done anything like that for maybe 30 years, and it was really exhilarating.”
What do you tell aspiring photojournalists when they ask you if it’s a realistic career path today?
“I hear people say, ‘It’s so much harder now,’ but I don’t buy it. There are more magazines than there ever have been in the history of magazines. When we did the Grosvenor Square riots, I first had to research where the march was going to start, the route, the best vantage points, who the major leaders were, and how I could get to the American embassy early enough to get behind the police lines. Having done the shoot, I had to go back home, develop all my film, dry all my film, and make 15 sets of 15 pictures, which took all night. I then had to package them, go down to the post office, and post them off to various magazines throughout the world. Now you tell me which is easier – doing that or pressing a button on your computer?”