visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

David Hurn: A Welsh Life

Sheepdog Trails. Nant Paris, 1996

In photography, there is always a tension between the objective and the subjective: the photographer’s duty to document reality, on the one hand, and his or her eye for artistic detail, on the other. This tension is particularly acute in the work of David Hurn, on show at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

Born in Redhill, Surrey, to Welsh parents, Hurn first came to prominence, aged just 22, covering the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for the American magazine Life. After working freelance for newspapers like The Observer and The Sunday Times, he joined the distinguished Magnum Photos Agency in 1965, and soon established an international reputation for his iconic images of stars such as Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and The Beatles.

In the early 1970s, Hurn journeyed to Wales in search of his cultural roots. Having tread the well-worn path of the Welsh Picturesque Tour, he soon became disillusioned with the “tourist image of mountains, valleys and sheep,” and turned his camera on the world of tourism itself. Hurn caught Wales at a moment of dramatic social change, as communal leisure activities like miners’ galas, brass bands and the annual holiday fortnight at Barry Island began to die out with the decline of heavy industry. At the same time, his record of Welsh society was made with characteristic humour, reflecting the photographer’s keen eye for the bizarre.

Pub Sing-Song. Sennybridge, 1973

Pub Sing-Song. Sennybridge, 1973

Included in the current exhibition alongside Hurn’s photographs of ‘70s Wales are two more recent strands of work. One assembles portraits featuring a personal canon of Welsh heroes, including Joe Calzaghe, Tyrone O’Sullivan and the late poet R.S. Thomas (looking fearsome as ever). The other focuses on the Welsh landscape. Here, the photographer has decided to switch from gritty monochrome to radiant colour exposure. As with Anthony Stokes’ recent views of the Welsh Valleys, it suggests the flowering of a more vibrant Wales out the industrial ruins of the 1970s. Nevertheless, Hurn remains as much fascinated by the aesthetic form of his subjects as their sociological significance. It is this artistic sensibility that gives his photographs of Welsh life such compelling appeal.

David Hurn: A Welsh Life is at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery from Sat 24 May till Sat 5 Jul 2008.

This post was originally published by Buzz magazine.


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