PHOTOGRAPHY / Carved in emulsion: I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes . . . Jane Richards sees an exhibition of photographs which proves that sculpture is all around

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The Independent Culture
We all make sculptures,' David Hurn says, and his new exhibition, 'Carvings and Controversy', proves his point. From children's sandcastles to stone walls built by farmers, 'the beauty of sculpture is everywhere,' according to Hurn.

David Hurn started his career in 1957 when his coverage of the Hungarian uprising was sold to Life magazine. He has since become known as an outstanding British reportage photographer with a talent for spotlighting the ambiguities and eccentricities of the human condition. He was well- placed, therefore, when appointed as the Bradford Fellow in Photography in 1992, to tackle the tricky question of how people react and relate to sculpture in the environment.

'But it quickly became much more than that,' he explains. 'I began to question the nature of sculpture itself, and to try to discover why it provokes such controversy. What exactly is sculpture? Few people have a clear idea of what makes it good or bad, or even what it is and isn't'

The pictures involving people are, accordingly, most successful. Witness his scenes from the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail: a family on a distant bench watches sculptured animals (in the foreground) closely, as if expecting them to move.

Hurn soon discovered there is no easy way of locating all the possible kinds of sculpture in Britain, let alone finding out what people think of them. Nevertheless he set out on a seemingly endless trek around the country - and ended up with much more than he expected. 'I pasted 70 sheets of blank paper on the wall,' he says, 'and filled in the gaps as they began to show. In this way I could include all the new areas of sculpture I was discovering and get an idea of the whole picture.'

He strives to show the subject from all angles - sometimes literally. A spectacular Rodin sculpture of John the Baptist, bought by a wealthy farmer and sited in a field of cows in Glenkiln, Scotland, is photographed first from a distance, a tiny figure dwarfed by its environment, then close-up, where it is seen to be dominating the countryside - the power of selective photography.

Elsewhere, the photographs are no more than moving testimonials to human endeavour. Consider the wire-mesh sculptures made by a council worker employed to look after the cliff-face on the road above Treherbert, Wales - the man is now redundant, though the decaying sculptures remain. Then there are the nave sculptures by John Fairnington of Branxton, Northumberland, who began making the animals at the age of 80 to amuse his handicapped son. Built on a chicken-wire base, stuffed with waste paper and covered in concrete, these cows, sheep, horses, zebras and bears fill his back garden to bizarre effect.

Hurn also demonstrates the power of photography to 'create sculpture' where none strictly exists. A wide- angle lens reveals the hidden beauty of 50,000 interlinking units (each weighing several tons) which form man-made sea defences near Colwyn Bay, North Wales.

'What I hope to achieve is an intellectual and emotional response, wrapped up in a beautiful package,' Hurn says. And it's a pretty good description of what's on show: Hurn is a master of composition with a knack for playful juxtaposition. Very little has been set up, except for his salute to the photography of Bill Brandt: a waitress (right) displays a sculpture (resembling whipped meringues) by Sarah Bradpiece on a silver tray.

And he takes great pleasure in referring to past masters of both photography and art: there are shades of Fox Talbot and Monet in his photograph of a haystack. And who could fail to smile at Hurn's dig at Damien Hirst - 'Away from the flock?' - a portrait of a dead and rotting sheep at the base of the cliff at Southendown, South Wales. 'Who needs to preserve a dead sheep in chemicals,' Hurn asks, 'when you can see it for real in its own environment?'

National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Pictureville, Bradford (0274 727488). To 27 November

(Photograph omitted)

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