Writing The Picture, By David Hurn and John Fuller

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The Independent Culture

This book is among the most critically and financially risky of enterprises: a combination of the work of a well-known photographer with that of an equally well-known poet. Collaborators over the decades, David Hurn and John Fuller insist that neither of their work is intended to illustrate the other. Presumably, its role is to create a fresh synthesis that amounts to more than a sum of the parts, while acknowledging that both image and verse can stand alone. Much is down to how the combination works on the page. The format is traditional: each double-spread awards the verso to the poem and the recto to the photo, following the journalistic idiom that the reader's eye is always first drawn to the right-hand image.

Hurn, an Englishman living on the Welsh borders, has been documenting his adoptive homeland for the past 40 years. The majority of these beautifully reproduced black-and-white images date back to another Wales: that of miners, their faces stained black with coal, their teeth bared white as minstrels'; of the marching band that accompanied a rugby team, preceded by a shaggy dog and two kids racing a metal pram down the road; and a name-check of the most famed and favoured of Welsh poets, his curling photo-portrait in a café in the seaside village where Dylan Thomas wrote in his boathouse – as it were, a dual reference to both the poet and the photographer.

The words, provided by a poet who has spent long years as an Oxford academic, are often surprisingly populist and lyrical. The NUM banner on parade ("Mardy Lodge: Forward to Socialism") opens with a verse: "I saw my valley taken/ For a bondman's wage./ When will we awaken?" The deliberate historicity of "bondman" followed at once with the question, as much of the hymnal as a political slogan, could as well be sung. Lyricism abounds in another of Hurn's favourite subjects, a wild colt, arched white against the dark gorse, reframed by Fuller as: "I dreamed a pony that could fly:/he suddenly looked up at me/With horizons in his eye".

Deprivation, however, has less elegant aspects. The old sailor still squeezes his accordion, and is photographed with a bollard behind his shoulder, as if it were a lighthouse. But the young woman shooting up on bare floorboards beside a dirty lavatory bowl makes a clear statement: "Don't any of you look at me./ I am not here".

Perhaps the authors protest too much. After an initial discussion, included in the fascinating introduction, they concur that the specificity of a poem can only follow on that of the image, not the reverse. Either way, this brave volume offers a proud collaboration between two masters of their chosen arts.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at UEA, Norwich