Celebrated Magnum photographer David Hurn first made his name as a photojournalist in the 1950s. He then went on to establish the Documentary Photography BA at the University of Wales, Newport, which produced some of the most renowned British photographers working today. He tells IdeasMag what he looks for in his students, and how he learned to take photographs…
I can teach someone how to take a photograph, but what I can’t do is get hold of the person that says: “I just want to be a photographer.”
When I started to teach [the Documentary Photography BA] at Newport, I took the easy option. I didn’t look at portfolios; I selected people that cared about things. It didn’t matter what – rugby, clothes, butterflies - but it had to be something.
We had two wonderful sports photographers that won all the awards – Bill Jenkins and Mike Steele. Mike came to us when he was 18 and said he wanted to be a sports photographer. So I said, “What would you really like to photograph this weekend?” And he said, “I’d like to go to Scunthorpe to watch their football team, because it’s 100 years since they started wearing pink as their colour.”
I immediately thought I could work with this guy, because he had an understanding of images, he had a curiosity, and he had some knowledge. If you have those things, it then becomes comparatively easy to tell someone how to shoot the picture. But what you can never teach someone is how to have that enthusiasm and endeavor.
So what makes a photographer is taking a lot of pictures. Not talking about it or analysing it – leave that until afterwards, or let other people do it. You need to shoot pictures and you need to look at contact sheets of the great photographers.
When I became a photographer in the 1950s, I was working with people who were entirely self-taught. There was no such thing as photo galleries or photography courses, and they never saw themselves as artists.
I became a member of Magnum Photos in 1967. It allowed me to go over to Paris and sit in the office every night, for hour after hour after hour, looking at contact sheets of people like Elliott Erwitt or Sebastião Salgado or Henri-Cartier Bresson.
The first thing you learn is how much work they put in to make a collection. It’s not just one roll of film that they’ve got lucky on – they’ve used lots of rolls of film. And every time they’ve pressed the shutter, they’ve thought the shot was worthwhile before; at the end of the film, admitting to themselves that most of the shots were crap. Now that’s a wonderful learning process – to see what they chose and what they discarded.
My advice to people is not to spend £9,000 on a photography degree when you can buy books that show how people like that learned how to do it. Because you can delve into what was before and after. That became the basis for the course at Newport.
So I used to say to the students on the course: “You can do what you like, but this is what the greats did, and that might be worth thinking about.”
Find out more about David Hurn’s career and the Documentary Photography course in Newport.
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Main image: London 1964 © David Hurn.
Second image: From the collection Wales: Land of my Father © David Hurn.
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