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Watch the Birdie (1963)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Watch the Birdie (1963)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 9/6/1963
28 mins, black and white
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC

The work of professional photographer David Hurn, shown tackling a wide range of subjects from fashion to photojournalism to candid paparazzo shots.

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In the mid-1950s, between abandoning a career in dance and finally getting a film-making job at the BBC, Ken Russell worked as a photographer, a few years before it became one of the most iconic of all British professions, immortalised by Michelangelo Antonioni in his film Blow-Up (1966), which was in turn inspired by the careers of photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan.

Although David Hurn (b. 1934) never achieved their level of public recognition, it's clear from Watch the Birdie (BBC, tx. 9/6/1963) that his career has come a long way since he was featured in A House in Bayswater (BBC, tx. 26/8/1960) as a tenant in one of Russell's former homes. Despite Hurn's frequently-expressed dissatisfaction with his own work (at the end of the film, he laments that of the thousands of pictures he takes every year, he's only truly pleased with a handful), it's clear that his clients value it rather more, not least thanks to his sheer versatility.

Russell's film shows him turning his hand to a wide range of photographic assignments including photo-journalism (he first made his name covering the Hungarian revolution of 1956, though he's sharply critical of the methods he employed there), candid shots, fashion, publicity or personal projects, such as his documenting of the lives of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a Notting Hill convent of nuns who specialise in nursing, or the lives of Soho strippers and the environments in which they work.

Along the way Hurn talks about the different techniques and priorities that each assignment requires. His fashion and publicity shoots are meticulously art-directed in advance and beautifully lit, whereas with paparazzo pictures the speed of delivery to his editor is much more important: if the people are recognisable and the picture can be captioned, that's good enough (Russell stages this sequence as a high-speed chase through the undergrowth, with Hurn narrowly escaping a guard-dog savaging). Hurn is similarly realistic about the commercial imperatives behind his work, that for all their aesthetic appeal, much of it is essentially advertising.

Two years after the programme was shown, Hurn joined the prestigious Magnum photographic agency, which has represented his work ever since. In 1973, he founded the School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales, beginning a second career as a renowned teacher of the subject with which he had increasingly become associated.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Hungary 1956 (1:22)
2. The paparazzo (2:36)
3. Shooting fashion (3:43)
4. The Little Sisters (2:01)
5. Publicity (1:25)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years