Sean Connery as James Bond and Jane Fonda as Barbarella are among some of his most celebrated images.
But it’s in candid shots of ordinary people leading everyday lives that British photographer David Hurn truly excels – as he shows with a newly published collection of images taken over several decades in Arizona.
Hurn spent a year photographing the people of the Southwestern state from 1979 to 1980 after winning a fellowship marking 200 years of US independence.
He captured Arizona’s ambiance in public places such as hospitals and parks and private moments like a bride’s wedding day preparations.
After that year, Hurn returned every two or three years – Arizona had a hold on him.
“I was just interested in people – and in a very sort of mundane way,” he tells CNN Travel. “I’ve always been a very positive sort of person about life.”
A selection of these photographs have been edited by Hurn into a new book: “Arizona Trips,” published by Reel Art Press.
Path to success
Hurn, now 83 and member of the renowned photographic cooperative Magnum Photos, came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, and dropped out of military training to become a photographer in 1960s London.
“I had never ever thought about being a photographer when I was in school,” he recalls. “I wanted to be an archaeologist or a vet, but I suffer from extreme dyslexia. At the time that I was at school, there was no such word, you know you were just ‘thick.’”
When the opportunity arose to travel to America, Hurn was drawn to the political and geographical differences with his British homeland.
The spirit of Arizona
“It was a very enjoyable time for me, and I like Arizona enormously,” says Hurn. “It’s one of my favorite places.”
He was intrigued by the state’s desert landscapes, but his photographs are mostly populated by characters and stories.
“It’s always people I’m primarily interested in. And then I’m interested in the landscape to show you where those people live,” he explains. “But the landscape for me is a very much a minor part of it. In fact, most of the landscape that I shoot usually has human connotations in it somewhere.”
Hurn mentions one photograph in the book which shows an example of human intervention in the natural landscape: a cactus in a nursery wearing cups to protect it from frost.
“One of the lovely things about photography is all the information can be there but you could so easily misinterpret it,” he says.
“So I guess it looks a little bit like as though somebody has had a joke and put of a lot of things on top. But, actually, it’s there for a purpose.”
Extraordinary in the ordinary
With only two major cities, Phoenix and Tuscon, in which to capture Arizona’s people, Hurn turned to small rodeo towns such as Prescott and Payson.
“To me, rodeo is America,” says Hurn. “If anybody says they’re going to America, I say, ‘Well if you really want to get the flavor of America, go to a rodeo, that’s all out of the tradition of early American Western.’”
Hurn’s interest in photographing people stems from his desire to forge connections and to establish relationships.
“One of the great beauties about working with people all the time, is you meet all these people – and that’s lovely,” says the photographer. “I can’t think of anything more pleasurable than meeting people.”
One memorable picture in the book shows a young bride on her wedding day, dressed in her gown and veil as she stands in an Arizona ranch.
“I think it’s terribly sweet that she was watching this children’s program on telly while she was waiting and there was something so, so almost naive about her as well,” he says. “She was childlike herself. It was so sweet.
“I just find it an enormous privilege to find myself in that sort of situation,” adds Hurn. “You suddenly think, hang on, this is a really human situation. How do we now make it into a picture that somebody else might get an insight into the way people live?”
Living the dream
For Hurn integrating himself into Arizona culture had an added appeal – at times, it felt like stepping into the silver screen, hanging out with, and dressing like cowboys.
But he also had access to the state’s Native American reservations.
“There are seven tribes in Arizona and because I did a big story on premature babies at the hospital, I got an entrée into those American tribes, which you don’t normally get,” he remembers.
He says politics seeped into his photographs more subtly than he expected, but there was no attempt to pass judgment.
“You know, you do see a lot of flag waving – and [Americans] have a lot of parades, they like parades,” he says. “I hope, if every so often there are pictures that seem to criticize, it’s criticism out of love, not out of trying to be clever.”
Reliving the past
While noting that some photographs take on greater significance as they age, Hurn says he’s toyed with the idea of returning to Arizona and recreating some of his iconic images.
“Any picture you take, in 100 years time, has enormous value,” he reflects. “And if it starts off by being a photograph which is about some little moment or some sort of happening or something – then it’s even more valuable than 100 years time.”
He’s also fascinated by the changing state of photography and wants to help young smart phone users hone their skills.
“I have been talking, in fact, to the museum in Cardiff about trying to set up some sort of educational program based on that idea,” he explains. “You’ve got a captive audience – they all love shooting pictures. How do you persuade them, that they should be looking at the outside world rather than themselves?”
Young people, he says, seem to prefer his more nuanced work to the celebrity shots of James Bond or The Beatles. It’s something the veteran photographer finds encouraging.
“[A photo] has all this factual information in the picture, which 99% of the people will pick up on,” he says. “But the actual interpretation of the picture, what it’s about? Everybody will have a different point of view. “