Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection- A Review

As of 2017, the National Museum of Wales has recently established a gallery dedicated to photography with different exhibitions happening every few months. The first of these shows features David Hurn’s unique collection of photographs which he built up from swapping prints with fellow photographers.

Hurn has had a long history of being a photojournalist having first risen to prominence after his documentation of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. During the 1960s, he photographed the celebrities of the day such as Sean Connery, Jane Fonda and the Beatles. He became a member of the Magnum photographic agency within the same decade. His images not only record events, but also captures a sense of humanity within situations. A great example of this being Hurn’s picture of a retired gentlemen at an MG car owner’s ball. A portrait of an elderly man dressed in formal attire who you would assume might present himself in a proper, maybe even aloof, fashion. However, Hurn depicts him as joyfully playing with a balloon which successfully contradicts this idea.

Hurn’s collection for the exhibition has been decades in the making. Given his Magnum membership, it would make sense that some of the work featured in this collection are from fellow members. That said, there’s also prints from photographers that Hurn admires (such as Sergio Larrain), his peers (Don McCullin) and those more recently established (Clementine Schneidermann).

This order of influences, colleagues and newcomers is one of the exhibition’s strengths as it provides a historical narrative that illustrates the progression of documentary photography. However, perhaps more noticeable is the content of the exhibition itself. There are photographs in Hurn’s collection from very prominent figures in photography’s history. There are pictures by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson (an image of painter Henri Matisse in his studio), Elliott Erwitt (an amusing portrayal of a bird and a tap), Martin Parr (a sunbather in New Brighton) and a few others. The experience of viewing prints from these influential individuals is very different from looking at the images in a book and on the internet. It is the equivalent to meeting someone you’ve only heard about in the flesh and becoming star struck.

There’s also the personal touches that the prints themselves bring. On some of the photographs are signatures from their respective photographers as well as friendly messages directed to Hurn (Cartier-Bresson, in particular, had stamped his own print). A notable example of these intriguing traces is a developer stain on a print by Bill Brandt which makes you feel as though you are privy to the darkroom process. Again, such insights are usually absent from reproductions.

In addition to this, it is worth praising the positives of the exhibition space itself. Instead of going with the stereotypical white cube model, the walls are grey. This should be dull, but compliments the work well because it is understated and doesn’t distract from the images. There is also a relevance in that it brings to mind the black and white imagery seen in early documentary photography.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few positive aspects of the space as, when looking around the room, the flaws eventually become obvious. The first evident problem is when looking at the Cartier-Bresson print and knowing that it has been hung too low on the wall. This does save space for other photographs, but it makes reading the image a challenge. Yes, you do feel very fortunate for having viewed this print, but no one wants a bad back in the process.

However, the difficulties with the positioning of the photographs do not stop there. After viewing the Cartier-Bresson print, the other photographs follow in a nice neat line until you reach the wall opposite to the doors where you are confronted with about twenty-five pictures. There are diagrams and captions on the walls to either side of the work to help identify the photographs but having that many prints in one part of the room prevents a proper analysis of the exhibits.

Specifically, one of the problems is that some of the photographs have been hung too high on the wall in order to accommodate for the rest of the work. Some people visiting the gallery would probably like to look at some of the pictures up close to study the details and really read into the images. With a few of the exhibits, this would only be possible with a stepladder. It is also not helpful to those with bad eyesight who might feel discriminated against in such circumstances. As a result of this need to hang so many pictures on one wall, once again, there are also photographs that have been positioned too low.

The two plaques that accommodate these images are also problematic because they work against the convention of having one label contextualising a single picture. Diagrams as well as words are used instead which are certainly helpful, but create a disconnect within the dialogue between image and text. Basically, you find yourself looking at the photograph, then either looking to your left or right to see who made the picture through text and diagram. If such information were not important, it would feel like an awful lot of work. The usual method of having a single plaque alongside each picture might be an improvement in this case.

What might also help the presentation of the exhibits is to either find a bigger room or edit down the photographs to a more manageable number. The determination to fit as many pictures as possible into one space is admirable, but it can be to the detriment of viewing the work.

In addition to the positioning of the pictures, there are other areas that need to be improved upon within the exhibition. What could be considered a minor complaint is that beveled frames are used which can border on slightly decorative. Fortunately, if the frames were not black, this would be a major distraction from the pictures. Straight frames would be a safer and preferable option, but as they are, they are a minor departure from the norm.

The lighting around the gallery was also strange as it seemed to verge almost on spotlighting the photographs and making the rest of the space seem a bit dim. It would have been interesting to view the gallery with brighter lighting. Spotlighting the work is understandable (you obviously need decent lighting to view the images), but it is not as though visitors are going to ignore the exhibits.

It is arguable that these flaws are evidence of a fledgling gallery space. After all, it is the National Museum’s first foray into a gallery solely dedicated to photography. Conversely, this is the National Museum of Wales and, with that kind of prestigious reputation, you do expect a certain standard.

On a personal note, I feel it is worth discussing what stood out for me in terms of the work displayed. Given that this exhibition wouldn’t have been possible without Hurn, it is important to focus on one of his pictures as well as someone else’s.

With this in mind, a memorable photograph by Hurn features a sign within the Arizona desert. I immediately gravitated towards this image because of my interest in the landscape genre and how it was telling a story of that area. Within the picture we view a location that looks like it could be out of the western genre of film. Rocky hills, scrubby bushes and cacti present the idea of a land that is dry. This is combined with mostly light tones in the photograph and you have the impression of a hot, dusty and sun-bleached wilderness. However, this illusion is shattered by the inclusion of a sign in the composition that reads “COME SEE.” The capital letters are so bold within the overall picture that it disrupts your reading of the landscape depicted and forces you to consider what the sign is communicating.

With my interest in humanity’s effect on the landscape, I believe that Hurn’s photograph is about people trying to capitalise on nature with the words “COME SEE” almost feeling as though it is enticing you into experiencing the wonders of nature at the cost of any damage done to the terrain. In fact, quick research into this photograph clarifies that the sign means that housing and shopping malls shortly will be built on the land. My analysis of this picture, although not completely accurate, is still pretty close to the truth.

Another photograph in the exhibition that I took an interest in was by the Magnum photographer Mark Power. In the past year or so, I have been influenced by Power’s work in my own practice so I felt lucky to see one of his prints. The photograph in question depicted blue girders suspended from what looked to be the ceiling of a factory. The story behind the picture was that Power had been commissioned by Airbus to document the construction of their A380 passenger plane.

The caption for the image gave me enough information to know that there was some type of production line in progress. What actually attracted me to the picture was how visually fascinating the subject looked. Power had found an intriguing composition within a potentially drab environment. Certainly, the photograph represents a factory ceiling, but the various columns and supports combined with the girders create this chaotic criss-cross effect. This type of image can only be obtained by carefully and patiently observing the environment before pressing the shutter release. Power’s objective style also helps, not only for Airbus’s promotional purposes, but because it allows photography to be used as a descriptive tool as opposed to an over-dependence on aesthetics.

The success of the exhibition rests on the photographs displayed. It is appropriate that, to celebrate the opening of the National Museum’s photography gallery, the first show would be dedicated to the work of influential figures in the medium’s history. There is a sense of feeling fortunate about viewing such famous imagery within the one space. If you are willing to overlook the gripes (improvement will probably come from each subsequent exhibition), you are treated to the history of documentary photography from the perspective of an individual who has witnessed and lived it.

Overall, I highly recommend Swaps as there is something in the show for anyone who is interested in photography. The variety of work displayed will prove influential and thought-provoking to any level of photographer as well as being fascinating to those with an appreciation of reportage imagery. Let’s hope this opens the door to more photographers swapping their prints in future.

Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection is on at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and runs until the 15th April.