In Conversation with Photographer David Hurn: The 60s, Magnum Photos, London

Magnum Print Room’s current show on iconic photographer David Hurn focuses on his work from the 1960s. The exhibition will reflect the range of Hurn’s diverse output in just one decade – from celebrity portraits to the British at the seaside, the anti-Vietnam war London protests of 1968 to street scenes of Manhattan. Best known for his portraits of icons such as Sean Connery from With Russia with Love and Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Hurn’s work in the 1960s provides a chronicle of the decade. Pivotal historical moments such as the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 are juxtaposed with scenes of every day life across the social spectrum – from crowds at the famous Hammersmith Palais dance hall to the débutantes at Queen Charlotte’s ball and the counterculture vitality of the Isle of Wight festival in 1969.

A self-taught photographer, David Hurn (b.1934) began his career in 1955 as an assistant at the Reflex Agency. He gained his early reputation through his reportage of the 1956 Hungarian revolution and became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1967. In 1973 he set up the influential School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales and remained director until 1989. Hurn’s self-initiated book Wales: Land of My Father best reflects his style and creative impetus, drawing upon observations of the changes taking place in Wales from 1970 until the book’s publication by Thames & Hudson thirty years later in 2000. His work is held in major collections including British Council, London; ICP, New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Bibliothèque nationale de France and National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, amongst others. David Hurn continues to live in, and work from, his home in Tintern, Wales. We speak to the photographer.

A: Were you aware of a distinct 1960s aesthetic when taking these photographs, or did this become apparent in hindsight?
DH: Some time ago I wrote “Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as they are”.  If one believes this and follows it stringently one will always produce a distinct aesthetic of any time – it’s simply serious observation.

A: What do you hope that photographers at the start of their career could learn from this exhibition?
DH: I hope the young will realise that being a photographer is great fun – I have had a blissful life. I hope they will feel that you should always have respect for your subject matter and be honest to your feelings. I hope they will realise that it involves a lot of walking and the most important tool is good shoes.

A: Which photographs in the show are particularly memorable, and which are you most attached to?
DH: The most memorable happening was undoubtedly the Aberfan disaster. An obscene disaster in my country, Wales, when a colliery spoil tip collapsed, slipped and killed 116 children and 28 adults in the local school. It was difficult to photograph as one was concious that the local miners were struggling to dig out their children – their natural reaction was not to want us there. I realised that the event should be recorded for future history so I gently remained. I think it was the correct decision as soon, the government decided that all spoil tips should be cleared and landscaped – I suspect largely due to press coverage.

David Hurn: The 60s, until 31 January 2016, Magnum Print Room, 63 Gee Street, London EC1V 3RS.

The 1960s Photographed by David Hurn  is available now, published by Reel Art Press.

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1. The BEATLES in the Abbey Road Studios, where many of their most famous records were made, examining the script of the film ‘A Hard Days Night’, London 1964 © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.