In Focus: The photographer obsessed with why we all like to be beside the seaside

David Hurn has spent over half a century capturing the lives of ordinary people in an affectionate and honest manner. Lilias Wigan takes a look at some of his works, which are featured in an exhibition at National Maritime Museum.

Porth Oer (Whistling Sands) - Enjoying the beach. 2004 ©David Hurn / Magnum Photos, and taken from the exhibition ‘The Great British Seaside: Photography from 1960s to present’ at the National Maritime Museum

Porth Oer (Whistling Sands) – Enjoying the beach. 2004 ©David Hurn / Magnum Photos. Part of the exhibition ‘The Great British Seaside: Photography from 1960s to present’ at the National Maritime Museum

A trip to the British seaside has united people for generations. Harbouring the promise of ice creams, arcade games, piers, sandcastles, shingle, beach huts, seagulls, sandcastles, buckets, spades and vinegar-doused fish and chips, a day at the beach has remained essentially unchanged for generations.

The National Maritime Museum’s summer exhibition The Great British Seaside; Photography From the 1960s To The Present explores this national ritual through the work of four British photographers: David Hurn, Martin Parr, Tony Ray-Jones and Simon Roberts. The museum has also commissioned 20 new photographs from Martin Parr that show the contemporary, cross-cultural appeal of London’s ‘local’ beaches.

Blackpool Promenade, Lancashire, 24th July 2008, ©SimonRoberts. Courtesy of the Flowers Gallery, London

‘We English’ by Simon Roberts. This image of Blackpool Promenade was taken on 24th July 2008  – but it’s hard to identify anything that wouldn’t have been in place half a century ago. ©Simon Roberts, courtesy of the Flowers Gallery, London

Among the 100 or so works on show, it’s the imagery of David Hurn that is most discerning. Born in 1934, Hurn lives and works in his native Wales. A self-taught photographer, he began to make a name for himself by documenting the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 — a place he reached on a hitchhiking venture from London.

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He continued to cover current affairs to satisfy the media’s appetite for political reportage, but his work later shifted to a more personal approach. He became an associate member of the prestigious Magnum photography cooperative in 1965 and was a full member by 1967. Amid the rising popularity of documentary photography and colour supplements in the 1960s, Hurn developed his love for capturing the ordinary lives of ordinary people in his preferred monochrome.

Born during the Great Depression, Hurn directly understood the economic appeal of the British seaside holiday. Cheap and cheerful, it was the prevailing choice for families: ‘The seaside is a place for uninhibited fun. It is cheap and democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness, but basically a way of having a good time.’

A David Hurn picture taken in Herne Bay, Kent, in 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

A David Hurn picture taken in Herne Bay, Kent, in 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

He recalls whole train-loads of families with their gear, uniting for journeys to the coast. An entire street would book a coach and spend the day together on the shore. One photograph captures them gathered within the same windbreak on an otherwise deserted beach. Underlying the scene’s obvious wit is Hurn’s recognition of the social role of the seaside. It brings people together.

Whistling Sands (2004; pictured at the top of the page) shows a scene of northwest Wales. An elderly woman slumps opposite the viewer, sprawled into a sagging beach chair halfway to the sea. She has trundled this far and surrendered in a heap, facing a weak sun.

The beach is peppered with parents and children playing. Family possessions lie strewn across the camp; her last companion — a withered inflatable — rests wearily beside her. The granular haze of the backdrop awakens memories of sea mists and salty breezes. It’s a timeless image.

In denying time, Hurn focuses on social commentary. Crucially, his quirky snippets of passing life are not degrading, but affectionate and honest. He can spend 12 hours a day wandering around without being noticed, looking for these unexpected moments of levity. It’s no surprise then, that his most valued possession is not his camera, but a pair of good shoes.

The Great British Seaside: Photography From The 1960s To The Present is on at the National Maritime Museum until 30 September. Tickets available at Members go free.