I first came across the work of David Hurn when reading the book ‘Cardiff – Rebirth of a Capital’. The book contains many wonderful black and white photographs taken by Hurn but the one that caught my eye was one of a man on a tricycle and with a child in hand taken from outside Pen-y-lan library taken probably in the 1960s. The church in the background is St Andrew’s URC church, where we hold our monthly meetings.
I was keen to see if we could use that photograph on our website and luckily in doing so managed to meet up with David. He is both charming and forthright at the same time; there are few wasted words.
I saw David Hurn again recently when he opened an exhibition of his photographs at the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir. There’s just time to catch it if you hurry.
Hurn wasn’t born in Roath but he did grow up here. He was born in Surrey on 21st July 1934 but shortly afterwards the family relocated to Cardiff. In the 1939 Register he was at school and living at 3 Newminster Road but the house David remembers most vividly is 104 Marlborough Road. He attended De la Salle School but his dyslexia made education challenging. His father was in the military and David himself joined the military and attended Sandhurst where he first discovered a love of photography.
Choosing photography over a military career he headed for London to doggedly pursue a photographic career. It took time, he initially got other jobs to make ends meet but his big break came when he hitchhiked over to Hungary in 1956 to take photos of the uprising against the Communist regime.
Having got his photographs widely published he was much in demand, though not necessarily as a war photographer. In the 1960 much time was spent snapping what we would now call celebrities; film stars, pop musicians and alike including the Beatles and Jane Fonda. He quickly worked out that when sent on an assignment there were four important shots to get that may end up differentiating you from your competition, a portrait, a close-up, a wide-angle and a shot in context.
One day when Sean Connery arrived at the studio for a shoot the publicist forgot to bring one important prop – a gun. Fortunately David Hurn was keen on air pistol target-shooting and so they were able to use David’s pistols in the photographs. The plan was to edit the photos afterwards to make it look more like a real gun before they were used on the bill-boards but that somehow got forgotten.
David Hurn is also known for his photographs of the Aberfan disaster in 1966. He was one of the first photographers on the scene, and of course not necessarily that welcome. Local miners were busy digging the bodies of the village children out of the suffocating coal slurry. The photographs however acted as evidence of the tragedy and were shown in Parliament and played a small part in helping bring about change and preventing another similar disaster.
In 1967 he joined the prestigious Magnum photographic cooperative, a top accolade for a photojournalist.
Later in life however he left the world of photography journalism behind he returned to live in Wales where he set about recording the landscape and people of Wales. His collection must be the largest on record totalling over 50,000 shots of the nation and its people. Many of these have now been donated to the National Museum of Wales together with others that he swapped with fellow professional photographers over the years.
Also on return to Wales he ended up in 1972 setting up a course on documentary photography at Gwent College in Newport which was to become highly regarded.
He is a self-taught photographer. He very much believes in talking photographs of the world as he sees it rather than posed shots. He takes candid shots of life as it happens. His subjects are not asked if they want to be photographed. He tends to concentrate on scenes he knows will not be there in another 20 years, capturing history as it happens as it were, always attempting to get the definitive picture of the time and place. He is however much more interested in tomorrow than he is in the past and his thirst for life is evident when he talks.
Asked what are the secrets of being a good photographer David will talk about hard work, lots of time spent doing research, tenacity and a good pair of shoes. The photographer needs to be driven by curiosity and have a lot of patience. A lot is about positioning, working out when you arrive at a place the perfect place to stand and then waiting. Very rarely would he spend less than 30 minutes at a place just waiting for that perfect shot. His work ethic is ruthless. He’s of the belief that anyone who spends less than 7.5 hours a day at it is just playing, but that time is not all about shooting; there is the researching and looking at the work of other skilled photographers.
So what makes a good shot of the community? Well, having a dog somewhere in the picture can add a lot of context he explains. People making gestures too are very important.
His shots are never edited, they are just life as it happened to be at the time. Even today in his eighties, David Hurn is taking 4000 photographs a year. That gets followed by some ruthless selection procedure after which he would end up with just twenty or so to display at an exhibition.
He still has good things to say about his hometown of Cardiff, about its sense of community and the place itself though maybe like many feels there have been wasted opportunities in the architecture chosen for the centrepiece buildings along the waterfront in Cardiff Bay.
In 2001 he was diagnosed with colon cancer but has made a full recovery. He now sees radiographers as a most important branch of photography and encourages youngsters with an enthusiasm in photography to consider this as a profession.
Today, David lives in Tintern and still spends time photographing the community in which he lives. He often works closely with poets and his next project is to ask ten poets to write something about one of his pictures expecting it to demonstrate that we all see different things in the same picture.
PS. With the help of the members of the Cardiff Days Gone By Facebook group, the scene of the ‘Walkers in Roath’ photo has actually been identified as Atlas Road in Canton at the junction with Denton Street. The house which could be seen as bricked up in the photo has been demolished.