Amazing and Absurd Photographs of Life in Arizona

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On the road from California to Arizona via Joshua Tree Forest, 1979Photography by David Hurn, Courtesy of David Hurn / Magnum Photos

A new book from Magnum photographer David Hurn documents the marvels of everyday life in the American state, from Dolly Parton lookalike competitions to pensioner aerobics

“I’m an observer of the eccentricities of life… the exotic of the mundane,” celebrated British photographer David Hurn said in a recent interview with the BBC. This is a tenet that has long defined the 83-year-old’s practice. In 1956, one year after he entered the world of photography as an assistant at the Reflex Agency, the young image-maker hitchhiked to Budapest to document the tumultuous uprising, then in full swing. The resulting pictures – of protesters chanting arm in arm, of young freedom fighters standing among piles of rubble, of an old woman running errands during a lull in the fighting – were snapped up by Life and Picture Post and marked the beginning of Hurn’s fruitful, ongoing career as a freelance documentary photographer. But current affairs were not Hurn’s principal interest, and before long he had turned his lens to more personal observations of society and its everyday idiosyncrasies.

 Some of the best examples of these can be seen in the decade-spanning series of images taken by Hurn during multiple visits to the arid American state of Arizona – now the subject of brand new book, David Hurn: Arizona Trips, published to mark the 70th anniversary of Magnum photo agency, where Hurn has been a member since 1965. Hurn’s 20-year love affair with Arizona began in 1979, when he was awarded a UK/USA Bicentennial Fellowship, allowing him a year to photograph in any part of America he pleased. “I chose Arizona [because] it is the most right wing state in America, plus it is the driest State in America. The exact opposite of my home country Wales,” he says in conversation with cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling for the book’s accompanying text. “The contrasts appealed to me.”

While Arizona’s striking and expansive desertscape may seem like the most obvious point of interest for a photographer, Hurn’s preoccupation was with the state’s lively inhabitants, and the myriad ways in which they spent their days. “I love to observe what people – or, better still, groups of people – are doing,” he says. “I’ve always been nosy, I suppose, and having a camera allows one to indulge one’s curiosity and record it”. In Arizona, his inquisitive nature led him into a number of visually arresting scenarios, which he documented with a tangible delight – from Dolly Parton lookalike competitions and fraternity dances to rodeos and pensioner aerobic classes, all rendered in his mesmeric monochrome style.   

At every turn, Hurn’s great accomplishment is to celebrate the inherent absurdities and marvels of human existence, with a quiet reverence and propensity for impeccable composition and timing, allowing them to reveal themselves without coercion. A teacher dressed as a witch for Halloween rests a pointy nailed hand on a young pupil’s head; a characterful cluster of cactii wear paper cups like party hats (to stop them getting frostbite, Hurn explains in the book’s text); a mother’s hand reaches into a hospital crib to touch the tiny fingers of her premature baby. “Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities,” says Hurn simply. “There is more pleasure, for me, in things as they are.”

David Hurn: Arizona Trips is out now, published by Reel Art Press.