In 1979, Magnum photographer David Hurn was awarded a U.S./UK Bicentennial Fellowship, which he used to spend a year photographing in Arizona. In his new book Arizona Trips, published this month by Reel Art Press, he explains the appeal of the place. “It was the most right-wing state in America and Wales at that time [where Hurn was from] was probably the most left-wing part of the UK. Also it’s the driest state in America and Wales is the wettest. So it seemed to me it was such an extraordinary contrast…and if you have that kind of contrast you’re starting off from an easy point.”
The images he made focus on social interactions, in settings ranging from high school football matches to beauty pageants at Sun City, the massive retirement community. He photographed at the Republican State convention, demolition derbies and arm wresting competitions at the Arizona State Fair and at a Dolly Parton look-alike contest. A favorite subject was the state’s cowboy culture. He tells Christopher Frayling in an interview reproduced in the book, “I loved that romantic idea of the rodeo. Rodeo is spectacular; it’s like sheep dog trials on a high. If anybody comes to Wales, I say if you really want to understand Wales go and see a sheep dog trial. In America I say if you really want to know America go to a rodeo.” Using a Leica and working only with found light, Hurn finds offhand moments between subjects, while highlighting their sometimes absurd circumstances.
While many photographers have been seduced by the beauty of Arizona’s landscape, Hurn was attracted to wry moments where human intentions intersect with nature. In one image, he photographed a group of cacti that had been fitted with caps to protect them from the cold. He tells Frayling, “It’s because at night they get frostbite. So they put the paper cups over them to protect them, it’s ingenious but it’s so funny.” As Hurn has said, “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, there is more pleasure, for me, in things as they are.”