David Hurn

(1934 - )


On Being A Photographer: A Practical Guide


Hurn was born on 21 July 1934 in Redhill, Surrey, England. He was raised in Cardiff, Wales. Because of his dyslexia he joined the school camera club. After leaving school he headed for London, hoping to become a photographer.

Hurn is a self-taught photographer. He began his career in 1955 when he worked for Reflex Agency. He gained his reputation as a photojournalist for his documentation of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and is featured in two of Ken Russell's films for the Monitor television arts' series, A House in Bayswater (1960), and Watch the Birdie (1963). In 1965 he became associated with Magnum Photos and became a full member in 1967.

In 1963, Hurn was commissioned by the producers of the James Bond films to shoot a series of stills with Sean Connery and the actresses of From Russia with Love. When the theatrical property Walther PPK pistol didn't arrive, Hurn volunteered the use of his own Walther LP-53 air pistol. The pistol became a symbol of James Bond on many film posters of the series.

In 1967 Dino de Laurentiis asked Hurn to travel to Rome to shoot photos of Jane Fonda in Barbarella.

Hurn returned to Wales in the late 1960s, initially living in a van for a year photographing the country.

In 1973 he set up the School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales. Eventually, he turned away from documentary photojournalism, bringing a more personal approach to his image making. He says, "There are many forms of photography. I consider myself simply a recorder of that which I find of interest around me. I personally have no desire to create or stage direct ideas." His book, Wales: Land of My Father (2000), illustrates the traditional and the modern aspects of Wales.

In 2001 he was diagnosed with colon cancer but made a full recovery. He continues to live and work in Wales, and has donated a collection of photographs taken by him and other leading contemporary photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, and Bill Brandt, to the National Museum of Wales.

Hurn has been an avid collector of photography. Remarkably, he has amassed his private collection by swapping works with other photographers. The collection National Museum Cardiff comprises approximately 700 photographs. Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection, National Museum Cardiff, Wales, September 2017 – April 2018. In 2017 Hurn donated 1500 of his photographs, and 700 of other peoples' photographs, to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. He built his private collection of other peoples' work by swapping prints with them. National Museum Cardiff held an exhibition of the latter collection in 2017/2018, entitled Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection.


“My advice is: learn from the best or teach yourself. And do not bother at all if you do not have an exaggerated sense of curiosity.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 15

“My chosen tool for understanding life, and communicating the results of this search to others, is the camera.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 35

“Once any photographer reaches some notoriety or fame, the art establishment shuffles through all the garbage looking for saleable vintage junk. And every photographer produces rubbish. The art world doesn’t do that to painters or sculptors…”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 37

[In a photo essay]… the fine images are linked together with lesser images and are necessary for pace and rhythm in the layout.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 37, 38

“The only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like—under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation. As to objectivity it does not exist.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 39

“I never claim my photographs reveal some definitive truth. I claim that this is what I saw and felt about the subject at the time the pictures were made.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 39

“I refer to myself as a reportage photographer. I like the word. It implies a personal account of an observed event with connotations of subjectivity but honesty. It is eye-witness photography.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 40

“… care must be taken in the arrangement of the individual units in any grouping of photographs, but I suspect that beyond a certain point, it does not matter as much as critics would lead us to believe.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 42

“… you are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 41

“… photography is only a tool, a vehicle for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. It is not the end result.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 44

“It comes down to the choice of subject. The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing interest. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time.:

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 44

“… most teachers, classes, workshops, books, whatever, imply that how the picture is made, what techniques were employed, why it looks different and artistic, is more important than the subject matter. Yet the photographer is primarily, a subject-selector.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 45

“… the subject matter you select must: a) fire your enthusiasm and curiosity for at least the length of time it will take to produce a meaningful body of work; b) lend itself to images, as opposed to words and, c) remain continuously accessible…”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 47

“… when selecting topics for a visual essay… ‘be as specific as possible’… take on a project which is containable and can be completed within a reasonable period of time.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 48

“… just wandering around looking for pictures, hoping that something will pop up and announce itself, does not work.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 48

“… there is a common denominator among [all the best photographer’s] approaches to the taking of of pictures: they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their subject matter and they plan ahead of the actual work.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 49

“The narrower and more clearly defined the subject matter at the start, the more quickly identified is the ‘direction in which to aim the camera,’ as Steiner said, and the more pictures are taken. The more shooting, the greater the enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject. The greater your knowledge, the more you want to do it justice and this increases the scope and depth of the pictures. So the process feeds on itself.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 49

“… I have no objection to anyone using photography for personal therapy… these images will have an audience of one, the person who made them. Rarely will they have any resonance or value to a larger audience.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 50

“A unique style… is the byproduct of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 51

“… by the simple act of choosing a topic to explore photographically, you are asserting self.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 52

“In a real sense photographers are photographers one hundred percent of the time. Everything connects… no wonder that who a photographer is becomes revealed through what he/she photographs.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 52

“Take a mother on a beach watching her child build sand castles. She suddenly sees an expression which tugs at her heart-strings. Without thought, she dips into the picnic basket, aims the camera, and presses the button. The moment has been captured—and will be treasured for the rest of her life… The mother has an intimate knowledge of her subject; she is the expert on that child. She is enthusiastic in her love of the subject. There is no thought of self or creativity, although both are intimately present. The snap was made without concern for technique. The are the ingredients which should be present in the acts of all photographers, no matter how sophisticated, yet they are the very ones which art too often ignored.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 53

“… individual pictures can be very important even when rationally, intellectually made but the bodies of work, the lifetime achievements of a photographer, which impress me the most are those based in love as well as knowledge.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 55

“The photographer must always keep in mind that there is a purpose to the picture. That purpose is to reveal the chosen aspect of the subject matter, to clarify its essence—and to accomplish this goal through a visually interesting picture.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 57

“… very often the difference between an average photographer and a really fine photographer is this willingness to admit doubt, that he/she is not at all certain that he/she has ‘got it.’”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 58

“… good design is essential when its purpose is the clear projection of the subject matter, that is, when design is the vehicle not the destination…. function produces form. When you have most clearly reveled the essence of the subject, the chances are you have produced a good design… The design, though, has come second; it has followed the first priority, to reveal the subject.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 67

“The photographer’s aim is to create beautiful pictures, of any and all subject matter.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 69

“When I look at great photographs of any type there seems to be a common ground: a sense of inevitability. I cannot imagine how the images could have been designed in any other way. They seem complete just as they exist.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 70

“Elliott Erwitt, who is responsible for most of the witticisms that I remember in photography, has asserted that he cannot recall a project that took more than five seconds to shoot! And he’s right. Five seconds equals lots of 1/250 second exposures.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 77, 78

“It is important to live with… images to see which ones last.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 80

“Photographers should not put pictures in a box under their beds and be the only ones to see them. If they put film in their cameras it presupposes that they want to record what they see and show somebody else. Photography is abut communication… To many people waste time taking unusable photographs. If they cannot be used, you are back to the box of prints under the bed.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 84, 85

“As a general guide I would guess that for a seven-picture essay I would shoot 20-30 cassettes of 36-exposure 35mm film. A single, exhibition-quality image occurs every, say 100 films.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 91

“The camera allows me to interact with strangers because it provides two services: one, it provides a shield, something to hide behind, so that when I look through the viewfinder I am interacting with an image, not real people; two, it provides an excuse for being in that situation… It gives me both an invisibility cloak and an excuse for intruding into other lives… One of the easiest ways to overcome shyness is to be a photograher.

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 91, 92

Joseph Koudekla: “I have to shoot three cassettes of film a day, even when not ‘photographing,’ in order to keep the eye in practice.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 103

“The ‘I want to do it,’ inspirational phase of creativity must be joined with the tough, rational working out and development of the inspiration.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 103

“I work out of two camera bags, both small and of the same type, one on each shoulder. The main reason why so many photographers suffer from bad backs is not so much the weight but the tensing of the opposite shoulder when carrying anything on the other one. This is alleviated by carrying a bag on each shoulder as a kind of balance, evening out the pressure.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 107

“My opinion is that the future of documentary photography is directly linked to the question of morality… nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, decent, and doing it with a reasonable expectation that in the long run, as well as in the short, we will not be sorry for what we have done. It means we protect our subject matter when we shoot.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 110

“Very few people who take photographs are visual. They do not see. They record—but that’s not seeing. It’s very hard to see.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 110

Robert Adams: “Philosophy can forsake too easily the details of experience… many writers and painters have demonstrated that thinking long about what art is or ought to be ruins the power to write.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 112

Pedro Meyer: “Perfect images are so difficult to find in reality but now [with computerized digital manipulation] I have a tool for correcting photography’s problems.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 123

“… the art world is far more corrupt—in its subjectivity, nepotism, reliance on shared favors, dependence on who you know—than the professional arena.”

On Being a Photographer; David Hurn, p. 132


1) Photographers are the best editors of their own work.

2) Photographers are their own best writers/designers.

3) Photographers are good printers.

4) Commerce is corrupt, art is pure.

5) Photography is about talent and instinct.

6) The it-has-been-done-before syndrome.

7) Critics and theorists are useful to photographers.

8) You should not photograph in foreign cultures.

9) Documentary photography is not art.





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