David Hurn’s love of photography begins with a love of the ordinary. It’s funny how in a career spanning over half a century, we have come to view his photos as anything but ordinary. From The Beatles to Bond Girls, The 1960s Photographed by David Hurn showcases a spectacular spread of a decade buried under years of nostalgia. It wasn’t all flowers and hippies, but it was undeniably cool. David’s cool too and Hunger caught up with him to talk about his career, how to get into Magnum and what the reality of living in the swinging sixties was really like.
Looking at your photos, it made me feel pretty sad. There are photos here of Soho that I’ve never known, and never will. I felt like I was missing out on something special. How do you feet looking back at them?
Interesting. Well, I just love the reality of life. I never set anything up, I never pose anything, to me, most of the world wanders around seeing, only a few wander around and actually observe. There’s a staggering difference between the two, one is to do with concentration, the other is just looking. I’ve always loved trying to pinpoint what I think my memories will be of something in thirty years. I simply photograph what’s there, the Soho pictures are simply what was there. It was the first strip club in London. That moment will never happen again.
On the other hand, the Isle of Wight festival photos spoke to me very directly, I could relate to those scenes even though they are from the 60s.
Oh yes, that was probably one of the first big pop festivals. It was good because I wasn’t that interested in the people on the stage, I was much more interested in finding out where everyone went to the toilet, what they had for breakfast, who was sleeping in which tent with who, how they were looking after babies et cetera. My way of photographing is simply to follow my nose. Luckily, over the last 50 years, the things that have interested me have interested other people that are willing to pay for the pictures. So I survived.
So how do you develop that instinct, as a photographer?
I just have an insatiable curiosity, I’m very interested in what I would call the ‘exotic of the mundane’. So that which is very ordinary, within that, for me, there are extraordinary things happening. If I go to a ballroom dancing competition, it’s rather boring but you do get some wonderful moments, people doing some flowery things. It’s dealing with the mundane but trying to make pictures, without any set-ups, that will be interesting, and hopefully be interesting forever.
Was this a very different approach to your contemporaries?
When I was starting there were people like Don McCullin and Ian Berry around me, but they were much more interested in current affairs and what I would call ‘the exotic’. I couldn’t compete with them. They were far better at it than me because I wasn’t interested in it. But I did have a little niche and everything I published I did partly because no one else was doing it.
So it’s a question of right place, right time?
Well, with cameras there are only two controls, one is where do you stand and the other is when do you push the button.
You make it sound so simple
It is! But so much of it is to do with preparation and research. If you don’t have experience then most of the time you’re in the wrong place. The more experience you get and the more you rush around the more you’ll find yourself in the right place. It can be hard work I used to say to students when they asked “what camera should I buy?” I’d say, ‘look forget about the camera for a moment, the first thing you buy as a photographer is really good shoes!’ Because if you’re going to be out there for 12 hours a day you will need some good feet. After you’ve got that, you can start to think about a camera. Knowing a lot about cameras doesn’t make you a photographer.
So what is the function of a portrait for you?
It’s very important for me to feel in one way or another that I am in the portrait. It must allow other people to see part of the subject’s personality, and not artificially. This means the people you’re photographing have to be very relaxed and just getting on with their lives. You have to chat to them, and enter a situation with them where they feel very relaxed. Far too many photographers now, I feel, are far more interested in themselves than their subjects. If the photographer is going to come through in the photo, it should do so naturally. But you know, good luck to them, we’re all just trying to earn a living and not die of malnutrition.
You’re part of Magnum group, how did that come about?
Getting into Magnum is very easy or very difficult; it depends on whether you have the qualities that Magnum are looking for, and the main quality is authorship. We are always looking for people whose photos are identifiable as their own. Of course, there is a torturous four-year process when you become nominee then an associate and then, finally, a member. When I got in, way back in 1965, a lot of it was about having the right friends. I was lucky to have met them when they were coming to London so I offered all my time to them to work as an assistant. So I was worked with Bruce Davidson and Elliot Erwitt, and we became very close friends, these are people I still stay with when I’m in New York. My process of getting into Magnum was much smoother.
To be honest, I never thought I wouldn’t get in once those connections had been made. You only become friends with those people, on photographic terms, if they think you are the right sort of person. Magnum is like a family. It’s been going for 70 years, I’ve been with them for about 50. When sitting around the table at Magnum, as you would with your family, you’re actually talking to people of enormous stature. So if one of them says ‘oh I really liked your photos of so-and-so’ you know they’re not just trying to flatter you, they’re actually saying to you that they think they’re pretty good. At the same time if they say ‘oh those were awful’, they’re no sense of one-upmanship. They have too much stature for that, they’re just saying they didn’t think they were very good.
So it’s a very honest space, for the photographic elite.
Yes, absolutely. You learn much more from your mistakes. I always tell my students to forget about their best photos, they will take care of themselves. Look at your worst photos and ask yourself why you think they’re bad. If you can put that right you will learn far quicker than just showing everyone your best pictures. One learns far more from being intelligent enough to admit you’ve done something wrong.
Was there anything specific about this decade, that you felt enabled you to capture it so well?
Well, I was lucky as I found myself, for all sorts of reasons, in that kind of inner sanctum, which in many ways symbolised the 60s. But the reality of the 60s is, initially, it was quite a small group of people. It was only later that it spread out. Suddenly you didn’t necessarily have to be gay to be a hairdresser, whereas before that was usually the case. Typically fashion photographers were the sort of people who knew the Queen and had been knighted but then Bailey, Donovan and Duffy came around they were all East End boys and it was all very exciting. And they were good at it because they did what they wanted to do and got on with it. So I did the same.