You know you've made it in photography when this man asks you...

"Can we swap?"

The Swapper is a story about the internationally-acclaimed British documentary photographer David Hurn; it is a story of a dyslexic, Welsh schoolboy written off as being "a bit thick" and an extraordinary "succession of bizarre coincidences" which would propel him into the ranks of photography's elite.

A fixture of Sixties London and the Hollywood inner sanctum, his images of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Sean Connery as James Bond, and the Beatles on the set of A Hard Day's Night, became icons of the 20th Century.

But they are mere window dressing on a body of work so influential that recognition by him is now regarded as something of an anointing of careers.

David Hurn is a luminary of Magnum Photos.

Magnum is the stuff of legends. Being invited to join its hallowed ranks - there are only 62 working members in the world - is notoriously difficult; think of it as a kind of SAS, Harvard, an Olympics gold medal of photography.

It is one of the most revered and exclusive organisations in the world which has documented life on virtually every corner of the planet over the past 70 years. That one famous photograph that sticks in your mind? Chances are it is a Magnum shot.

Its photographers have informed generations with some of the most indelible, mind-blowing, thought-provoking, disturbing, entertaining and curious images of our time.

Once nominated by existing members, you run a rigorous four year, three-stage gauntlet of continually proving your worth. Only the chosen few survive to be voted in as fully-fledged members.

"One of the first emails any new nominee will receive, on being accepted by Magnum, is from Hurn, inviting them to exchange," says Martin Parr, out-going president of Magnum Photos.

"Everyone always willingly agrees; they select their favourite Hurn image and vice versa."

To swap with David Hurn is a flattering entrée into the big time for photographers both inside and outside Magnum, young, old, established and lesser-known.

It is continuing a tradition started by Hurn in the late 1950s. Just as then, whenever a photographer's talent catches his eye today, he approaches them to swap a print.

His collection - now a 700-strong who's who of photography - is the subject of a major exhibition entitled 'Swaps, Photographs from the David Hurn Collection' in his native Cardiff.

It heralds the realisation of a long-held dream of Hurn's - the opening of the first permanent gallery dedicated to photography at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, where he has recently donated his entire £3.5m archive.

The museum is of deep significance. His mother, perhaps recognising something in her dyslexic son whom teachers had written off, would take him there on weekly visits. The marble-floored halls of Rodin statues and Brangwyn paintings ignited an insatiable curiosity that continues to fuel his work today.

The following sets out a selection of swaps from the exhibition which illustrate influences on his life, a selection of his own work along with the story of the "succession of bizarre coincidences" that shaped his extraordinary career as a self-taught photographer and educator.

And how aged 83, David Hurn has a new quest - to harness the phenomenon of the selfie to inspire photographers of the future.

When it comes to spontaneously bawling your eyes out some places are undoubtedly more desirable than others; the officers' mess at Sandhurst isn't one of them.

But then epiphanies are renowned for their untimeliness and on Saturday, 12 February 1955, David Hurn had exactly that, an epiphany; the non-religious kind. Hurn is a staunch atheist.

"It's such a ludicrously romantic story, it's almost stupid," he says.

Hurn, who left school with no qualifications, was doing national service when he was plucked from the ranks and catapulted into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

The army officer training centre needed to bolster its rugby team and Hurn's skill on the field made him an asset.

His dyslexia, long before it was recognised, had meant that childhood ambitions to be a vet or an archaeologist were scoffed at so at school he focussed on the one thing he could do well - sport.

"And so that's how I ended up at Sandhurst," he says. "That's the really puzzling part of my life as it was like going to university which had been totally out of my reach.

"I studied military history which I found fascinating and played sports all the time. My dad was a soldier in the Welsh Guards and so, like him, my life was mapped out very pleasantly indeed right up until the day I retired."

In the officers' mess that Saturday, Hurn was browsing through a copy of Picture Post - then a popular, weekly photojournalism magazine.

He stopped dead at a picture taken by the legendary French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding member of Magnum Photos.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1992 by Martine Franck

Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1992 by Martine Franck

Part of a ground-breaking photo essay on the Russians - the first by any Western photographer during the Cold War - it showed a soldier buying his wife a hat at a Leningrad department store, their child standing beside them.

"I suddenly burst into tears," he recalls. "I mean crying quite seriously.

"We had a lot of propaganda at Sandhurst which basically said the equivalent of all Russians eat their children.

"My earliest memory is my dad coming home from the army and taking my mum with me in tow to Howell's department store in Cardiff, where he bought her a hat.

"So my first recollection of mum and dad in love, and demonstrating that love, is her trying on various hats. When I saw this picture it brought all that back to me.

"What I recognised instantly then was the extraordinary ability of photography to evoke memory and boy, how powerfully it could do that.

"And I suddenly disbelieved the propaganda about Russia. I looked at the picture and was totally convinced that Russian people were just normal people like the rest of us.

"It was so significant. I remember saying to myself 'This is what I'd really love to do, go round shooting pictures of army officers buying their wives hats and getting other people to cry'."

He bought a Kodak folding Retina camera and resigned from the army.

His father was appalled. He had struggled through the Depression and never really forgave his son from walking away from an opportunity like Sandhurst.

"It was totally illogical," he says. "I had enormous doubts about what I was doing but they were over-powered, and, again, it sounds so romantic, by an intense desire to do this illogical thing - to take photographs."

Hurn found digs in London and sold shirts in Harrods.

In the evenings and weekends he would obsessively shoot photos around the lively coffee house scene in Soho.

Famous for their impromptu late-night jazz sessions, coffee bars such as the Nucleus, Le Macabre, The Partisan, were hot houses for 1950s liberal-thinking, politicised bohemians - burgeoning artists, film makers, writers and intellectuals - whose ideas helped propagate the countercultural explosion of the following decade.

Hurn was at a show of Cartier-Bresson's photographs when leading professional photographer Michael Peto introduced himself. He viewed Hurn's work and offered to help, introducing him to a thrusting photo agency called Reflex. Hurn was taken on as an assistant.

Reflex specialised in early telephoto lens photography - "The idea that the Royal watch by paparazzi is a recent phenomenon is nonsense," Hurn says - and it was a fertile training ground but he wanted more.

"The Hungarian revolution was happening and me and a friend thought we'd go and have a look at what was happening," he says.

"I bought a second-hand Contax camera with two lenses and a book on how to use it which I read as we hitch-hiked our way to Hungary. I was chancing my arm really.

"We got through the Iron Curtain by getting a lift on some ambulances. We hitch-hiked to Budapest and found out where the press were gathered. Somebody heard I was a freelance.

The LIFE magazine photographer hadn't managed to get in so their reporters said "you're now working for LIFE magazine".

"My first assignment with a camera I was still unsure how to use was with LIFE magazine.

"But then I've always said it's much better to start at the top than the bottom. At least you can cling on up there and that's what I did, I clung on."

One of the two photos published in LIFE - which sold 13.5m copies a week at its peak - remains particularly pertinent to him. It is of a child freedom fighter.

"A photograph allows you to record a single moment in time," he says. "It's always there. And I keep that one to remind me that the boy might well have died the next day."

As well as LIFE magazine his pictures of the anti-Soviet Hungary uprising appeared in Picture Post and the Observer. Hurn says only one per cent of what he shot was any good and that was down to fluke.

Fluke or not, on his return he was offered the unimaginable - a staff job at LIFE magazine. What was even more unimaginable, he turned it down.

"It's very strange," Hurn says. "I'm not entirely sure why. I didn't want to be working for a magazine and tied in that way.

"I presume I was fearful of being told what to do; maybe insecurity that I wouldn't be able to deliver, I don't know; I just felt much safer working on my own which after Hungary, I knew was possible."

Whatever the reason, Hurn's unswerving single-mindedness was curiously in sync with the vision that had given rise to Magnum 10 years earlier.

The agency was conceived in the aftermath of, and in reaction to, the totalitarianism horrors of World War II.

It was the quixotic vision of Robert Capa, reputed to be the greatest combat and adventure photographer in history.

Robert Capa shortly before he died in a land mine explosion in Vietnam, then part of Indochina, on assignment for LIFE magazine

Robert Capa shortly before he died in a land mine explosion in Vietnam, then part of Indochina, on assignment for LIFE magazine

A friend and colleague of Steinbeck and Hemingway, his intrepid coverage of conflicts earned him the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower in 1947.

That same year Capa approached four fellow war photographers, veterans of the Spanish Civil war and World War II - Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, Briton George Rodger and Americans David Seymour and William Vandivert - and explained his idea about combining their talent into a cooperative.

The intention was two-fold: to protect the copyright of their images and ensure their artistic integrity and freedom.

By controlling copyright, Capa realised he could publish in not just one, but maybe 15 magazines, which meant he could spend three times as long on a story and still be financially ahead.

It was a revolutionary business model whereby they would choose stories and not rely on direction from newspaper editors, a halcyon concept of "a brotherhood… beyond the pale of editorial sanction and censorship who could interpret the world as it was and who worshipped only things as they were".

The paperwork was drawn up in New York followed by a champagne celebration which is said to have given rise to the name, Magnum.

Little wonder given its pedigree that being accepted as a member is "considered one of the finest accolades of a photographer's career".

And it was an accolade that was about to move onto Hurn's radar.

Hurn, who shared flats with fledgling actor Peter O'Toole and was close friends with aspiring film-maker Ken Russell, obsessively analysed photography and its history with new-found friends such as Don McCullin, Ian Berry and Philip Jones Griffiths, all of whom later joined Magnum and achieved international acclaim covering conflicts around the world.

Don McCullin, knighted in 2017 for services to photography, at Hurn's flat in Bayswater, 1972 

Don McCullin, knighted in 2017 for services to photography, at Hurn's flat in Bayswater, 1972 

"We had gravitated together," he says. "We were do-ers not talkers and I've always find do-ers want to be in the company of other do-ers.

"I've never drank nor smoked so I've never been a pub person. We'd socialise in the coffee bars, analysing the work of great photographers, how to make a picture better. There was a friendly rivalry which has continued ever since and I suspect had a lot to do with the fact that all of us have done pretty well.

"In London at the time a few of the big photojournalism magazines had closed and it was all about newspapers. That was great in that they used photographs well; the Daily Express would sometimes run a double page photograph and the Daily Mail back then had something like 32 foreign correspondents. The problem with that was it was all linked to current affairs and news.

"I made a decent job of it but I wasn't terribly interested. The people around me were all really interested and almost by definition, were better than me.

"McCullin was interested in anything that made his adrenaline go. Philip Jones Griffiths was a very astute political animal, he really understood what politics were about, Ian was basically a traveller… and there was no way I was going to compete.

"I was aware that I was floating around in a pretty high class second division and I was never going to be in the first division while I was in that world.

"Then in 1958 I had a stroke of luck."

Hurn was photographing tourists enjoying the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

"Suddenly this guy came up to me," he says.

"He was also photographing the pigeons and he said 'I think you are probably a very good photographer'. I thought it was a bit odd at first.

"He told me that you can tell by the sheer concentration of some people when they are shooting pictures, most people don't concentrate, they just shoot lots of pictures.

Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain in Paris 1959

Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain in Paris 1959

"We went and had coffee. His name was Sergio Larrain, a photographer from Chile who was part of something called Magnum agency. I'd never even heard of Magnum. Sergio is in my top three of favourite photographers ever, so it was an extraordinary coincidence to meet him like that.

"We became very good friends. He showed me his pictures and they were exactly the sort of thing I loved. They had a poetic quality; they were seemingly about nothing yet were incredibly significant and poignant. He was totally a man after my own heart."

Larrain was the first photographer Hurn received a print from. It was only later, as he grew in stature as a photographer that he would ask to swap.

"I remember saying 'Oh I really like that' and he gave me a copy and I asked him to sign it. Prints weren't 'a thing' back then as there were no photo galleries as such. They would emerge later and galleries would sell signed prints as art in order to meet business overheads.

"This was long before that but it had sparked in me the realisation that to collect other people's pictures was a nice thing to do, a bit like someone's autograph. And that's how the swaps started."

Larrain looked at Hurn's pictures and steered him away from news and current affairs urging him to focus on his other work, similar in tone to his own, pictures of everyday people, the beauty of the mundane.

"That was great for me," Hurn says. "It was as if someone had released me and given me permission to do what I loved.

"Sergio was a huge influence on my life. He introduced me to the London agent who represented many agencies around the world including Magnum, a man called John Hillelson.

"I'm sure he took me on only because Sergio had recommended me. But it was another enormous break. I've had extraordinary breaks throughout my life.

"I've never worked out if everyone has these chances but maybe they don't grab them. I've been incredibly lucky but I genuinely think luck is simply realising something's significance and taking advantage of it."

There was no doubt the introduction to John Hillelson - whose Fleet Street agency contributed much to 20th Century photo-reportage - was pivotal.

By the early 1960s Hurn had found his niche and had little competition. At John Hillelson's behest he offered up a steady stream of photo essay ideas to the emerging Sunday supplements.

Meanwhile, Hillelson also steered him towards foreign magazine markets in France, Italy and Brazil. More crucially perhaps, he provided direct access to the world of Magnum photographers.

Whenever Hurn heard of a noted photographer's impending arrival from overseas he would make himself available as a guide, driver or general assistant.

"I believe there are two ways to learn to do things well, in the arts particularly," Hurn says. "Teach yourself, learn by experience and examine work by people who do what you want to do and continually ask "Why are they better than me?".

"The other method is to learn directly from someone you admire and who does what they do terribly well.

"George Rodger, a founding member of Magnum, lived in England. I met him and we got on very well. My instinct was to talk to the great photographers. And so I went out of my way to meet great photographers like Bill Brandt, I found out where he lived and simply knocked on his door.

"With each great photographer I met, my collection of prints would build. But I was always careful to discuss with them particular pictures of theirs that I liked. I think that made them happy that somebody wasn't just saying "oh I'd like a picture of yours"."

One of the first photographers Hurn offered to assist was Bruce Davidson, a young, hot-shot American and Magnum rookie who had wowed with gritty photo essays inside the hostile, disenfranchised New York ghettos and the US civil rights movement.

Bruce Davidson around the time he first met Hurn in London,1960

Bruce Davidson around the time he first met Hurn in London,1960

"Bruce was about the same age as me and I remember thinking 'Hang on, this guy is one of the greatest photographers in the world and I'm still floundering around trying to get something in the local newspaper'," Hurn says. "So that was an incredible spur. I really picked his brains a lot.

"Through watching him work I identified, without understanding it before that point, the idea of authorship which is what interests me most about photography.

"How can I describe authorship without it being elitist? Well, it is elitist to an extent, it's about distinctiveness. I'm interested in Monet as a painter because I can instantly see a particular painting is by Monet. And I find that interesting.

"It's the same with anything. Why do we move towards a certain singer? Barb Jungr is a singer I like very much whom most people won't have heard of. Why is it when I hear a song of hers I know instantly it's her singing?

"I find it more interesting in photography because there's no logic to it. All you've got is a box with a hole at the front. That's what we've all got and that's all we've ever had since photography was invented.

"All that happens is the image of life out there goes whizzing through that lens and goes bang onto some material or other and you get a trace of that life on the back of the box. And you've got once chance at it, unlike painting or writing you can't go back and edit, in photography the moment's gone and will never happen again.

"So, all we have is this box with a hole in the front. So how come if there was a sheep dog trial for instance and Cartier-Bresson, McCullin and Bruce Davidson were there, they are all photographing exactly the same thing but if you showed me 10 pictures from that event I would be able to tell you who had taken what picture?

"It's the signature of someone which can't be contrived; it's the purest thing to their real personality, the world seen through their eyes. The pictures are stamped with the unique style of the individual who shot them.

"But what is necessary for the authorship to come through is an impeccable command of the technical side. The best photographers might say 'Oh, the technical side is unimportant'. Well, the technical side is staggeringly important but it has got to the point with them that they don't have to think about it. That only comes through hard work and incessant practice.

"I always stress this point... you're not a photographer because you are interested in photography.

"The picture is out there, you don't make the picture, you just have a good visual eye and press the button at the right time. For that you must have an intense curiosity and tenacity, 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.

"A good example of authorship is Weejee whom I regard as one of the greatest photographers. He was an out and out news photographer. He worked primarily at night with a very large format camera which is very unwieldy and he worked only in New York."

Arthur Fellig - nicknamed Weejee, the phonetic of Ouija board due to his seemingly supernatural radar for unfolding human drama long before the emergency services got the call - is said to have been the inspiration behind the 2014 movie Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

"What is extraordinary about him is that news photographers are usually geared only for content and therefore they produce powerful content but they don't usually produce powerful pictures as such," Hurn adds.

"Weejee had this extraordinary talent of combining incredibly powerful content with an enormous sense of design in extreme conditions.

"I feel very much the same about McCullin who was in very difficult situations like wars and managed to produce pictures which were much more than 'Gosh, he managed to push the button amidst all that going on; isn't he brave?' He had the ability to look and observe and press the button at just the right time in very stressful circumstances. The pictures are more than simply a record, they are deeply moving. That's authorship. And it's a very attractive thing."

In 1963 Hurn was given the ultimate stamp of cool when a film by Ken Russell about his life work entitled Watch the Birdie was broadcast by the BBC.

It illustrates the versatility and diversity of Hurn's repertoire - a photo-journalist scaling a brick wall to escape a guard dog one minute, a meticulously-lit fashion spread for Harper's Bazaar the next.

Then it cuts to him dropping in on Little Sisters of the Assumption in Notting Hill Gate to document their work tending to the sick and destitute before roaring off in his custom-built sports car to Joey the Soho stripper who performs 30 times a day, an example of his signature radical and ground-breaking (for the time) black and white photo essays on London's alternative lifestyles or subcultures, drugs, transvestism etc.

Nuns nursing the elderly unable to find hospital beds,Notting Hill,1963

Nuns nursing the elderly unable to find hospital beds,Notting Hill,1963

Strip club - thought to be the first of its kind - in Old Compton Street, 1963

Strip club - thought to be the first of its kind - in Old Compton Street, 1963

"That was thanks to the example of Elliot Erwitt I'd met a few years before and who was another big influence on my work," Hurn says.

Erwitt, an American advertising and documentary photographer renowned for his quirky and immensely funny take on the absurdity and comedy of everyday life, is described as a master of Cartier-Bresson's so-called 'decisive moment' - that special moment that "transcends the subject and place and can be looked at for years to come" - to the layman it's identifying the exact split second to press the shutter.

"Meeting him was wonderful because he put into my head that you can actually do commercial photography as well as do the work you really want to do," Hurn adds.

"He worked in advertising but he never muddled that up with the fact that he carried a Leica camera with him at all times and shot his own pictures separately to the commercial work he was doing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

"So thanks to him I never had this hang up about 'selling out' by doing commercial work. It's the practise of doing things to your best ability, regardless of what you're doing."

To supplement his income and free him up to work on his preferred documentary or 'eye witness' photography, Hurn accepted invitations to photograph the film sets of countless films - El Cid, Bond, Alfie - after being introduced to a Hollywood film agent Tom Carlile through his late friend Richard Johnson, the distinguished actor who turned down the role of James Bond.

And on the subject of Bond, Hurn, who worked on the set of the first four 007 movies, shot the iconic film poster for From Russia With Love at his flat in Bayswater's Porchester Court, a creative hub and landmark destination for photographers the world over during the 60s.

An entourage including Hollywood producer Cubby Broccoli, descended along with Sean Connery. But there was one problem.

"The film's publicist came up to me and said 'I don't know what we're going to do. I've forgotten the gun'. To drive back out to the film studios would have taken hours. It happened that I enjoyed target shooting with an air pistol. It was a Walther and had a beautiful box with Walther written on the outside of it. Bond's pistol was a Walther PPK.

Movie publicist Tom Carlile in Hurn's studio on a Bond shoot. He would later hire Hurn for Barbarella

Movie publicist Tom Carlile in Hurn's studio on a Bond shoot. He would later hire Hurn for Barbarella

"I said 'Look, although it's an air pistol and has this great, big long barrel and Bond's has a small barrel, nobody here will know. The mere fact it's got Walther on the box they'll think it's the right one'.

"I said all you've got to do is make sure when they come to do the poster that the long barrel is cut off and it will be ok. But when it came to do the poster art they forgot. So if you look at any of those Bond posters, there's Mr Macho brandishing his air pistol."

Soon after Hurn was introduced to the Beatles film director Dick Lester who asked him to follow the group around for the six weeks of filming for their first film A Hard Day's Night.

He liked Ringo Starr the best but it was the "exceedingly shy" George Harrison that Hurn would have the biggest impact on by introducing him to his future wife.

One of George Harrison's first encounters with Pattie Boyd

One of George Harrison's first encounters with Pattie Boyd

Hurn's friend, fellow photographer Eric Swayne was dating Pattie Boyd at the time.

Swayne was keen to meet the Beatles and Hurn somehow persuaded Dick Lester to allow them onto the set and Pattie became a film extra.

Harrison, who would later write the love song Something about her, was transfixed.

"I introduced her to them all," Hurn says.

"I had no idea that the one had goggled at her more than the others. Of course, I wasn't the greatest friend of dear Eric Swayne from then."

A Hard Day's Night had cemented the Fab Four's place at the forefront of the British Invasion - the storming popularity of British music and culture into the US.

Director Dick Lester giving direction

Director Dick Lester giving direction

Hurn, who became an associate member of Magnum a year later in 1965, had played his part in that but it was two years later in 1967 in an altogether more cosmic invasion that he was to become better known.

The New York Times described Jane Fonda as the leading lady in the cult sci-fi movie Barbarella as "the most iconic sex goddess of the 60s". But that might never have been the case had it not been for Hurn.

The young Fonda, insecure about her looks and who hated being photographed, was giving film producer Dino de Laurentiis a tough time over the publicity stills and had rejected them out of hand.

"The publicist Tom Carlile phoned me up and explained what was going on," Hurn says. "He said 'Look David, come over to Italy and see if you can sort it out for me and try and calm her down'.

"The moment we met we got on extremely well. She said she felt her face was lop-sided 'like a squirrel with one cheek full of nuts'. I managed to make her laugh and somehow won her confidence.

"We became very good friends and I ended up spending nine months with her and her then husband Roger Vadim on the set and at their home. She's still a friend. We met up in LA a few months ago."

The Barbarella images graced the covers of 126 magazines around the world.

Newsweek reportedly achieved both its greatest news-stand sales and its highest number of subscriber cancellations when it published pictures of a naked Fonda on its cover under the headlines Anything Goes, The Permissive Society.

By this stage Hurn's hero and inspiration Henri Cartier-Bresson had actually visited his famous flat to personally examine his contact sheets shortly before he was voted in as a full member of Magnum in 1968. "It was like seeing God," he says.

Hurn's then wife, model and actress Alita Naughton with their daughter Sian

Hurn's then wife, model and actress Alita Naughton with their daughter Sian

Hurn led a rarefied life; an internationally-successful career, a beautiful wife, accomplished and celebrated friends, and an Aston Martin parked outside the front door.

The dyslexic schoolboy from Cardiff had done pretty well for himself.

But just over a year after Barbarella hit the screens, Hurn had left London, his marriage had broken down and he was living in a VW camper van on the banks of the river Severn near Newport, south Wales.

The lure of Hollywood celebrity and expensive London life-style had begun to fade some four years before.

One of the first photographers on the scene of the 1966 Aberfan disaster when 116 children and 28 adults died after a coal waste tip collapsed and crashed down a mountain burying the village school, Hurn was deeply affected by the experience.

"I hadn't lived in Wales since 1941," Hurn says. "My dad was in the army so we had moved around the UK. But my entire family was still in Cardiff.

"Aberfan had a profound effect on me because of how obscene it was. But it also vividly brought home to me the idea of Wales. Why did I still think of it as home? That fascinated me.

"The reality came in 1970 that I really didn't want to continue doing the stuff I'd be doing anymore; I guess I wanted a simpler life," Hurn says.

With characteristic curiosity, he drove to Wales to explore the concept of culture and home for a new book.

It was the beginning of an extensive, life-long body of work, books and exhibitions on his homeland, documenting its people, landscape and the massive upheaval of a nation as the pillars of industry which had shored up its economy for so long continued to crumble.

As he traversed the country documenting every day Welsh life, once again, a chance meeting was to change his fate.

Wandering around the countryside with his dogs and camera, Hurn met and struck up a conversation with a local college administrator.

Chatting about photography Hurn was asked if photography was something which could be taught.

Hurn's curiosity kicked in - what did all the most successful photographers have in common?

Hurn teaching at Newport in 1975

Hurn teaching at Newport in 1975

"I saw a pattern in how all the most respected photographers approached their work," Hurn said, "and I believed that these basic principles could be passed onto aspiring youngsters."

Hurn's interest was encouraged and he set up the School of Documentary Photography at the Newport College of Art. It would become one of the most sought after courses in the UK and beyond.

The course was run with Hurn's characteristic pragmatic approach.

There was to be no philosophical navel-gazing about 'truth' or the 'theory of light', it was about being on time, wearing good shoes - "If you're walking around for hours taking pictures, you need them" - analysing the contact sheets of successful photographers - "It's the best way to see how they think" - and, most importantly of all, getting a job.

"It was unbelievable," Hurn says. "We used to have about 700 applicants for 15 to 20 places.

Photography students wearing David Hurn masks at a college party

Photography students wearing David Hurn masks at a college party

But after 17 years of running the course which had built up a world-class reputation, Hurn walked out the door the day he was told the course was going to become a degree.

"The driving force for me was to bring in people who I thought could get a job and we deliberately kept the qualification at a lower level, a college diploma," he says.

"The second it became a degree course, there were all these rules about how much academic theory there had to be and this, that and the other. Absolutely fine; I'm not against people doing that, I simply said it had nothing to do with what I wanted, which was to get people jobs."

Now, after 30 years of a "frugal, very simple lifestyle" plying his trade, Hurn, credited by some as one of the most influential figures in photography education, is returning to that theme once again.

And curiously his renewed interest has been sparked by the phenomenon of the selfie.

"What's happening now is suddenly for the first time ever you have something which virtually everyone in the world loves - photography," Hurn says. "Nearly everyone's got the equivalent of an iPhone and they all take pictures.

"The only slight problem about this is the instinct of most people seems to be to take pictures of themselves or their friends and nothing outside of that. By far the most interesting aspect of the selfie is that everyone does it.

"The point of the selfie is immediate and only of interest for seconds so most of the interest seems to me as someone who doesn't do it, to be the fun act of doing it, usually with friends.

Hurn's first selfie taken earlier this week at his home in Tintern, Monmouthshire

Hurn's first selfie taken earlier this week at his home in Tintern, Monmouthshire

"I was listening to a radio programme which talked about the top 20 words that we use. Towards the end it said what's interesting is that two words - 'I' and 'myself' - had come into the list for the first time. I thought boy, that's interesting because it really fits in with today's culture.

"But I find that puzzling because rarely in the things that I think have been worthwhile in my life have the people involved been particularly interested in themselves.

"I find myself having to be very careful that I don't sound like my dad and therefore I retreat and simply say I don't find it interesting, I'm not condemning it in any way. It could be incredibly positive but I don't understand it as I find it very repetitious.

"But I would argue that with the selfie you have a captive audience in that they're interested in photography.

"I'm really interested in getting people to expand from just taking pictures of themselves; to see if they find photography interesting if for no other reason than there are jobs out there. There aren't jobs in taking pictures of yourself and your friends but there are jobs in taking pictures of other things.

"There are jobs in science and health. Anyone who's had a major operation, their life has been saved by a camera going down their throat or up their backside.

The most important picture taken during his life, says Hurn. The colon cancer he made a full recovery from in 2001

The most important picture taken during his life, says Hurn. The colon cancer he made a full recovery from in 2001

"I'd like to say to teenagers as I strongly suspect they're not told this in school, 'Do you realise that being a wedding photographer is a good profession', radiographers are needed, estate agent photographers and so on. These are honourable jobs which are probably more fun than stacking shelves in Tesco.

"The idea that there's no future in taking pictures is nonsensical. If you go to Smiths in Paddington station there's 3,000 magazines for sale and they've all got pictures in them, they're on websites.

"Everybody's floundering a little bit as to how to make any money from it but those sorts of problems will be solved, clever people will find ways. Pictures are going to be needed there and the skills are still going to be the same."

Hurn is now passionate about the possibility of inspiring young minds with photography beyond their social media profiles.

And so, coming back full circle to where his life began as a child visiting the museum in Cardiff, Hurn is drawing up workshops to engage some of the 34,000 school pupils who annually pass through its doors.

His premise is simple: arrange competitions whereby children/teenagers select their favourite shot from a collection of six by well-known photographers and use smartphones to see how they might replicate that photographic style while taking pictures of their everyday lives.

After all Henri Cartier-Bresson, the man whose work so moved Hurn all those years ago, once said: "In photography the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif."

His seemingly prosaic shot of a Russian soldier buying his wife a hat undoubtedly became the leitmotif, an object, an idea which has repeatedly reoccurred, throughout Hurn's life.

It is a measure of the force of the medium of photography that a picture that probably took a 60th of a second to shoot continues to fuel the life of another man 62 years on.

In the years to come maybe that same force will hit some young, floundering mind which happens upon an image of David Hurn's and, just like that moment in Sandhurst in 1955, an unexpectedly powerful response to a simple black and white record of a moment in time in a stranger's life will have altered their own in an instant.

Swaps - Photographs from the David Hurn collections runs from 30 September 2017 to 11 March 2018 at the National Museum Cardiff


Ceri Jackson

Web production
Philip John, Sophie Mutton, Ceri Jackson, Gwyndaf Hughes

Video production
Philip John

Cover photo
Brian Carroll, Ffoton

Photo credits

Magnum Photos, Getty Images, International Center of Photography, Oakland Museum of California, Ella Murtha,
Eva von Oelreich

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Date 29 September 2017

All images subject to copyright