Category Archives: Reading

Reflection – David Hurn ‘On Being a Photographer’

Approaching the end of the ‘Context and Narrative’ module, I looked back on notes I’d made after reading David Hurn’s book ‘On Being a Photographer’ and I have plucked out some of the key messages from it which resonated with me and which I will take forward into my future studies of the subject:-

‘Well my world is about to make the big change. The path to malnutrition. I have decided to give up full-time teaching. The decision is more from the heart than the head. When I add up possible income and match it against what I get now, the equation never balances. The problem is that I have no desire to be shot at, no desire to sit at the end of a car phone hoping to do three running jobs a day, no desire to photograph the prime minister’s cats, in fact no desire to do what I don’t want to do.’

At the time of writing (January 1995) it has been five years since David Hurn severed all links with a regular commitment. He may be poorer financially but he is richer in time. Time to do what he wants to do, and what he does best: take pictures. 

I sometimes forget that great photographers have also been on a possibly hazardous and difficult journey to get where they got to. Nobody gets given a photographic silver spoon; to be a great photographer requires a lot of hard work and dedication – what is unseen is the financial sacrifice and relinquishing of a level of security and certainly what struck a chord with me in Hurn’s letter above was that despite the ‘equation not balancing’, he did it anyway.

Photography is still, to me, mum “snapping” the baby and showing the result to grandma …”

Getting caught up in the theory as I have done on this course it’s sometimes easy to forget what you started out doing when you first picked up a camera. Hurn’s ‘snapping the baby’ comment is what makes me realise that photography provides us with a range of options and they don’t all have to be complex or clever, sometimes its great to just take photos for the same reasons you did so years ago!

‘David Hurn is photographing: the chances are that you would not notice him. He tends, chameleon-like, to blend in with whatever type of person is present, whether high-society wedding guest or working-class picnicker. He is not posing, pushing people around, creating a pocket of activity; he is discreet, one of everyone, a silent insider. But someone nudges you and says: that’s David Hurn, the photographer. So you introduce yourself, and find that he is immediately effusive, perhaps overly so, with the ready smile and enthusiasm of the congenitally shy. That might surprise you, but it is true. For all his world and worldly experiences David Hurn is a shy person, like many photographers of people. This seeming weakness he has turned into a strength. He likes people and through the camera can both connect with them and remain hidden behind the instrument.’

It seems incongruous that a world-famous photographer is essentially a shy character but I totally agree with the concept that the camera can be a ‘connecting’ device which sparks a conversation and it can give you confidence. I think there is no truer manifestation of this than when you are travelling and meeting people – the camera is often the instigator of a conversation and now with the ability to show images the second after you’ve taken them, is much more a shared experience and a language in its own right.

Some pictures are obviously more interesting, more beautiful, more inspiring than others, even of the same subject matter. More than that, they are indelibly stamped with the unique style, for want of a better word, of the individuals who made them…… It comes down to the choice of subject. The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time. ….when the subject takes precedence, you not only start the journey towards a personal style but also you discover the sheer joy of visually responding to the world. It solves a lot of doubts, clears away all confusion.

I think we are somewhat conditioned to take photographs of things that we think we ought to take. When I was on holiday standing in front of the Taj Mahal, I felt I needed to capture an image of the stunning architecture and take a series of photographs of it from different points of view and angles. I then reverted to my passion which was photographing people at the Taj Mahal. When I got back I was so pleased with the portraits, especially with the beautiful light bouncing off the building, I kicked myself as to why I wasted so much time on the touristy ‘default holiday images’ when I knew that our time there was limited.  I should have just gone with my passion in the first place…

‘The first thing to do is carry a notebook and during quiet times or as the thought occurs to you, compile a list of anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of subjects which fascinate you without regard to photography…. Be as specific as possible. After you have exhausted the list, you begin to cut it down by asking yourself these questions:  

Is it visual? You can safely eliminate such fascinating (to you) topics as existential philosophy or the Old Testament or the existence of intelligent life on other planets.

Is it practical? You can cut out topics which are difficult or impossible to photograph at your convenience on a regular basis. For example, if I were a photographer of limited means living in, say, Denver, I would have to eliminate the topic of Japanese pagodas, at least as far as photography is concerned.

Is it a subject about which I know enough? Eliminate those subjects about which you are ignorant, at least until you have conducted a good deal of research into the topic.

Is it interesting to others? This is a tricky one, but it is worth asking yourself: if you have several remaining topics all of which are equally fascinating, which one is interesting to others? This is tricky only in that it ignores the issue of your intended audience, which might be a small, specialized one, and the issue of pandering to public appeal.

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 so that you can return time and again to the same topic whenever you wish or have time.’

I really liked Hurn’s advice here because it is almost a flowchart for cultivating an idea. There are checks and balances made regarding practicality and likelihood of an effective outcome and these are all questions that should come up naturally whenever a new photography project is being considered… It is probably the single most useful piece of narrative I’ve read in a book on photography to date…

‘What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter? It is a frantic grasping for instant gratification which all too often leads to works displaying visual pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance. Photographers become pressured into a search for different-ness, a quest for newness which usually means an unusual technique: your dead-tree syndrome.’

“How I shudder at the interminable, self-indulgent, often incomprehensible photo-critiques I have been obliged to attend. My response to all those words about self is that the photographers are inviting judgment on themselves as people, not photographers, and that’s foolish. It seems an extraordinary presumption that every photographer has a depth of character which demands revelation! And if the self is shallow, narrow, superficial and inconsequential, then, they are admitting, so will be the resultant photographs.”

This tirade of Hurn’s made me chuckle and I wonder if my overall difficulty in expressing ‘self’ particularly for Assignment Three, was due the potential horror of realisation that maybe those adjectives – shallow, narrow, superficial and inconsequential could be levied quite legitimately, at me! As much as I struggled with the process for the assignment, I was pleased I went through the pain of it and came out the other side. I do know however, that my favourite photographic subject will never be ‘self!

‘The fact is that all photographs, even of the most prosaic records of things, are subjective. They are made as a result of various decisions arising out of the mind of an individual. So inevitably that ‘self’ will intrude on the picture-making process. It would be impossible to keep it out. But it is not the primary aim of the images…Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it. Over a long period of time and through many images, the self re-emerges with even greater strength than if it were the end-product.  Ironically, by starting with self, it is missed; ignore it, and it becomes evident.’

This is englightening from Hurn and makes me feel better about my Assignment 3 nemesis days. I have a friend who tells me that he can instantly tell if a portrait was one of mine when it pops up on FlickR.  Anxious moment ensued wondering if that was because they were all out of focus etc.., but no, he said that it was a combination of the very tight facial crop, engagement with the subject, and other features of my portraits that made them mine. This was both a compliment but also made me realise that I probably did have a style which was my own, without even realising it.

…photography is a matter of tiny details.

I like the phrase which was commonly used at the beginning of the medium’s history: photographs of merit were judged by their “meticulous exactitude.” Although it was used to denote sharpness it is equally applicable in terms of small variations in camera position, or timing…..Although we are still talking about shooting single pictures, as an end result, the method of achieving the one good image is to take many frames.

I regularly hear opposing theories on how many photographs to take in order to make a good one and I have to say that I agree with Hurn’s approach which is logical. I think many photographers hark back nostalgically to bygone eras where film cameras meant that all the work was in the preparation and that this actually made you a better photographer because you had to do all that refinement before taking the shot so as not to waste frames. However I still think that if you can’t compose an image well, it wouldn’t matter if you took 9 or 90 images because your choice of final shot would reflect your photographer’s ‘eye’ anyhow.

“The best pictures, for me, are those which go straight into the heart and the blood, and take some time to reach the brain.”

Well said David Hurn, I totally agree !

Assignment 3 – Research – Inspiring Self-portraits

FlickR is a rich source of imaginative self-portraits so it was useful to rifle through some websites which had selected some of the best creative ‘selfies’ to kick start me off on generating some ideas for the assignment. Many used photo-editing techniques to brilliant effect, such as this image entitled ‘Disagreement’ by Petri Damsten (, depicting the struggle that besets us when temptation strikes…

Petri Damsten1

Similarly this image ‘Confused self’ by Adele Firth (….

Adele Firth (FlickR)

…. uses equally nifty post-production techniques and appeals to me more when you read her predicament in her caption: ‘Self portrait taken on a day when I was full of energy and different emotions and feeling very frustrated with myself!!! I knew I wanted to do something creative but I couldn’t pin down in my mind how I felt or what I was wanting to do which resulted in a whole heap of frustration and mixed emotions (all of which were captured on camera!).’ 

Some of the images make clever use of reflections – a relatively easy way to capture yourself without the hassle of setting up a tripod, camera release etc., and its the abstraction of the layers of reflection that make the photograph interesting as in these examples by Mario Mancuso ( and Jason Rufus (

Mario Mancuso (FlickR)

Jason Rufus (Flickr)

Some photographs just made me smile; there is something about the self-deprecating nature of these images which instantly attract me and warm me to the character, such as these images by Jason Travis ( and Paul Stevenson (

Jason Travis (FlickR)

Paul Stevenson (FlickR)


Reading – Guardian Images 1

I regularly scroll through all the Photographs of the Week in the Guardian to get ideas and inspiration and there are always some that catch my eye.

This photograph with its rhythm of the equidistant strolling pedestrians pushing their bikes across this bridge over the Pyongyang river in North Korea, together with the beautiful reflection in the still water all shrouded in ethereal mist, I think is really stunning. The image is almost monotone save for the splash of colour provided by the person in the red coat.  It’s a refreshing change to see what I would call an ‘urban landscape’ so scientifically composed. The photographer/artist is Wong Maye.


This wildlife photograph below with the impalas flying through the air makes me think that a grenade has gone off in a wildlife park. It’s a great shot, well composed and sharp, with a clear view of the source of their surprise, the crocodile. As its a shot from a news agency, it does make me wonder if it is actually a screen grab of a video, the composition is so perfect. The news agency is Caters News Agency and shot was taken in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.


Reading – Jeremy Abrahams ‘Arrivals’

I love the simplicity of Jeremy Abrahams’ idea to photograph and interview one ‘arrival’ to Sheffield for every year since 1945.  It’s exactly the sort of project I would like to do in my own city of Norwich. Having spent a rather raucous year in Sheffield as a first year student (I never got beyond year one sadly, too much fun at the Frog and Parrot, not enough studying), I know how welcoming the city is, how comfortable the inhabitants are to chat to you on the bus even though they don’t know you from Adam, and so this would be an interesting exhibition to visit if I lived a bit closer… or didn’t work…. or didn’t mind a 5 hour train ride….

In the article on the ‘Sheffield Culture Guide’ website, there are only a few appetite-whetting images of Abrahams’ work on this project, and the one which stood out for me is this photograph of Pierre Ngunda Kabaya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s like he’s conquered the city, landed from a great height and purposefully planted his cultural flag into the industrial landscape. There is a pride in his expression and also a peacefulness which probably comes from his acceptance by the city inhabitants and his feeling of belonging.


Interesting also is Abrahams’ relatively recent venture into becoming a professional photographer at aged 58, he’s now 60. This leaves me feeling very positive!

See the article at