FRANK HURLEY: Capturing Adventures and History

Frank Hurley and Maslyn Williams, looking out over the Kidron Valley towards Jerusalem, Mount - photo by National Library of Australia

James Francis (Frank) Hurley was the second son and third of five children born to Edward Harrison Hurley and his wife Margaret Agnes, nee Bouffier. Margaret was the daughter of Heinrich Josef and Katherine Bouffier, who in 1866 had settled in what was then the wine producing region of Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.

Margaret married English trade union official Edward Hurley on 20 April 1880. They moved to the suburb of Glebe in Sydney and Frank was born on 15 October 1885.

James Francis (Frank) Hurley – photo by Australian Antarctic Division

Frank attended the local public school in Glebe until in the 6th class in 1898, he was involved in an incident of pouring caustic soda onto his teacher’s chair. The master only realised this after he had sat in the mixture and the seat of his pants had burned through. The irate man chased Frank around the classroom until Frank threw a full inkwell at him. The distraction allowed Frank to run out of class, where he headed for the Darling Harbour railway yards. He boarded a goods train heading west, thus running away from home at the age of thirteen.

At Mount Victoria, the station master removed Frank from the train, making a deal that if Frank fought a local trouble maker, he would let Frank go. Valiantly Frank attempted to live up to the bargain but was merely delivered two black eyes. The station master gave the youth two shillings and advised him of a job possibility as a fettler. Frank was employed as a ‘billy boy’ making tea and running errands, for the princely sum of five shillings per week.

It was not long before Frank quit and he was employed as an apprentice fitter at the Lithgow iron foundry for the much-improved wage of fifteen shillings per week. Frank wrote to his parents, who allowed him to stay in Lithgow; his father advising him that he “must either find a way or make one”.

It was here that Frank’s passion for photography was born. The foundry foreman was interested in the craft and took Frank along on weekend hikes into the Blue Mountains. Frank bought his first camera, a second-hand Brownie Box camera for 15 shillings, which debt he repaid at one shilling per week.

Hawkesbury train emerging from a tunnel, New South Wales, Frank Hurley – photo by National Library of Australia

He also met Henri Mallard, the manager of the photographic supply company Harrington’s Ltd., who imported and sold photographic goods between 1878 – 1939. Through Mallard, Frank was offered a paid commission for the Edison Phonograph Company. However, his dedication to his photography caused him to lose his job at the foundry and in 1905, he returned to Sydney.

Once there, he enrolled in the local technical school and attended science lectures at the University of Sydney. Here, he met and went into business with commercial photographer Harry Cave. The business entailed photographic postcard production and from their rented premises in Dalley Street, soon began to make a name for themselves, employing thirty people. His reputation of putting himself in the line of danger for a good shot was increased when he captured an oncoming train by standing in front of it. Frank was made a partner in 1908 but his prosperity came to an end when Cave died two years later, and the country was in recession.

His luck was to improve once again when he heard of the plans of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson to undertake an expedition to Antarctica. Frank’s old friend Henri Mallard recommended Frank to Mawson as official photographer. Frank managed to intercept Mawson on his way to boarding a train, who was convinced by Frank’s attitude and agreed to take him on, despite being only his third choice. They agreed on a wage of £6 per week and no share in pictorial rights.

Mawson leaning against the wind – photo by National Library of Australia

Hurley had his first exhibition in Sydney in 1910 before departing on the exhibition in 1911, which would last until 1914, with Harrington supplying the photographic equipment. His documentary of the expedition, called Home of the Blizzard, was released on his return, but Mawson was the only person to benefit financially from the proceeds.

The expedition on the Aurora began on 2nd December 1911, departing from Hobart, Tasmania.

Frank was the only Australian member and for which he was awarded the Silver Polar Medal clasp.

Hurley undertook a total of six expeditions to the Antarctic. The second was with Sir Ernest Shackleton on the Endurance from 1914-1916. Hurley was hired by Sir Ernest without being interviewed or even meeting him, on the strength of his reputation from the Mawson expedition and Hurley’s documentary thereof.

Taking Mawson’s advice, Hurley negotiated that he would receive 25% of all film revenues of his recordings. Shackleton agreed to this as the fronting investor money he had received to fund the expedition was to be mainly recouped from sales of photos and a movie of the mission. Hurley joined the ship at Buenos Aires on 12th October 1914, a mere six weeks before their departure and four days before Shackleton himself embarked.

Frank Hurley with camera on ice in front of the bow of the trapped Endurance in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton expedition, 1915 – photo by National Library of Australia

The expedition has been well documented; leaving port on 26th October, the Endurance docked at the last supply outpost Grytviken, South Georgia Island on 14th November. She departed once again on 5th December for the Antarctic. The ship, on her maiden voyage, was designed to crush most ice, but the pack ice, between 12-18 feet thick, defeated their best efforts to remain unobstructed. On 14th February 1915, Shackleton admitted that they were stuck fast for the season.

Hurley, however, remained at his post. His equipment is said to have included six still cameras using full glass plate, a panoramic camera, a number of film roll cameras using different formats and a Kodak Folding Vest Pocket Camera. This last was the only item that he was able to keep when the crew was forced to abandon the ship, which sank at 5pm on 21st November 1915 after ten months being marooned in the ice. Hurley’s recording of Endurance’s death-throes was amongst the approximated 500 photographs that were able to be saved. Before the ship sank completely, Hurley dived bare-chested through the icy water to retrieve glass plates that were then stored for transportation in zinc-lined, soldered tins. The decision of which of about 400 glass plate negatives to destroy was taken by Hurley and Shackleton.

Hurley had previously made master prints of 286 black and white photos which he mounted in a book he named the ‘Green Album’. In addition to this, 18 Paget colour plate screens were salvaged. Having first used this new method on the Mawson expedition, it comprised a complex system to produce a composite colour image. The exposure time required was a great deal less than that required for the established Autochrome method.

The marooned twenty-two men’s camp on Elephant Island (1916), Frank Hurley – photo by The National Gallery of Victoria

Hurley carried, under extreme conditions, everything that had been saved until the team was rescued from Elephant Island on 30th August 1916. He arrived in London on 11th November 1916.

Hurley returned to South Georgia Island in February 1917 to photograph the wildlife and glaciers that he had not been able to capture during the sojourn on Elephant Island.

On his return, his film In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice was released to great acclaim, the proceeds allowing Shackleton to settle his outstanding debts.

The footage was used again much later, in the 2001 release of the IMAX documentary Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, narrated by Kevin Spacey and featuring Michael Gambon as Shackleton.

In 1917, Hurley was appointed official war photographer, with the rank of honorary Captain. He was seconded to Flanders in Belgium and Palestine in the Middle East. However, his inclination to produce composite images to create a more dramatic effect was derided, especially by the official war historian Charles Bean. He labelled the images ‘fake’ and not a true reflection of the events of the war.

No title, Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track (1917), Frank Hurley – photo by The National Gallery of Victoria

Hurley resigned in October 1917 when he was ordered to refrain from producing such images, but he returned until he was demobbed from the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in March 1918.

One of Hurley’s most famous photos was taken on 5th October 1917, which was described as Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track. Hurley wrote in his diary of the day’s events: “The way was gruesome and awful beyond words. The ground had been recently heavily shelled by the Boche and the dead and wounded lay about everywhere … Last night’s shower too, made it a quagmire, and through this, the wounded had to drag themselves, and those mortally wounded pass out their young lives.”

In May 1918, Grafton Galleries in London mounted an exhibition entitled Australian War Photographs and Pictures, which included a number of Hurley’s works. In 1919, Hurley organised an exhibition at the Kodak Salon in Sydney for the Red Cross.

In April 1918, Frank had met Antoinette Thierault-Leighton, an opera singer, in Cairo. After a ten-day courtship, they married on 11th April 1918. Two months before the end of the war, in August 1918, Frank resigned from the army and he and Antoinette returned to Australia. They settled in Vaucluse in eastern Sydney.

Frank Hurley with his wife Antoinette – photo by Daily Telegraph

They had four children; twin girls Adelie and Antoinette born in May 1919, daughter Yvonne born in 1921 and Frank Jnr. arrived in 1923.

In August 1921, the Australian War Museum mounted an exhibition at the Royal Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne, called Exhibition of Enlargements of Official War Photographs. The AWRS (Australian War Records Section) director Charles Bean had organised the collation of 11 243 negatives of photos of Australians forces in the Middle East and Europe. The staff of the AWRS would probably have printed the photos, 261 of which were shown in the exhibition, showcasing a number of photographers. More than 80 000 people attended the 5-week event.

Between 1920 – 1923 Frank was once again away on his travels, undertaking two expeditions to Papua and New Guinea to film documentaries. During these expeditions, he courted controversy with both the Governor Sir Hubert Murray and the Papuan government for using ‘improper methods’ to collect native artefacts from the island. In 1921, his acclaimed documentary Pearls and Savages was released. In 1925, when he attempted to return to Papua for the third time, he was refused entry.

In 1929 and again in 1931, he teamed up once more with Douglas Mawson and returned to Antarctica under the banner of BANZARE (British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition.)

Hurley, on the right, discusses photographic opportunities for the forthcoming Battle of Bardia with an officer of the Australian 6th Division, Egypt, 1940 – photo by Wikipedia

In 1936, the South Australian Government produced an illustrated souvenir booklet for publicity, Hurley being commissioned to take the photographs, as well as two promotional movies, Oasis and Here is Paradise.

Up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Hurley made a number of films both at home and in England and the United States. However, when the war did break out, Hurley was considered to be too old to be sent back into the field as an official photographer. He was awarded the rank of acting Major in the Cinematographic & Photographic unit. He was awarded an OBE in 1941.

In 1946, he returned to Australia, for a time settling down with his family.

Hurley published several books, including the successful Shackleton’s Argonauts: A Saga of the Antarctic Ice-packs published in 1948. Other titles included Argonauts of the South (1925), a ‘Camera Study’ series of Sydney (1948), Queensland (1950), The Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves (1952) and Western Australia (1953). His most successful book was Australia: A Camera Study, published in 1959.

Inspecting a haul from the sea. From the left Douglas Mawson, Dr W Ingram, J W S Marr by rank Hurley – photo by Australian Antarctic Division

The National Library of Australia acquired a substantial collection of Hurley’s work after his death. Apart from the many books, the institution also retains a number of his photographic works, including the Frank Hurley Negative Collection 1910-1962, the Hurley collection of photographic prints (1910-1962), B.A.N.Z. Antarctic Research Expedition 1929-1931 and Photograph album of Papua and Torres Strait.

Amongst the many documentaries he made, Sagebrush and Silver (1941) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (one Reel).

Frank Hurley’s death on 16 January 1962 was almost an anti-climax after his adventurous life. He was sitting in his chair at home and told Antoinette that he was not feeling well but refused any assistance. He remained in the chair all night and was found to have died there.