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Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery


Chapter 10        Icelands to Wasteland


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The Antarctic expeditions and the battlefields of World War One

Two great arenas for heroic action by Australians arose in the second decade of the new century; scientific exploration of the Antarctic, and the punitive expeditions in Europe against the enemies of Britain and her realms. By then the status of photography was such that official, well-equipped photographers were assigned to record and promote both events. Frank Hurley (1885-1962) dominates the photographic history of Australian involvement in these two sagas.

Hurley was a transitional figure in surmounting many physical and technical difficulties in his quest to obtain rare images. Hurley inherited the traditions of pioneer views trade photographers. To these he welded aspects of Pictorialist aesthetics in vogue at the beginning of his career at the turn of the century, whilst avoiding the concern of that movement with fine art printmaking and overly personal and poetic vision.

In presenting his work through films, lectures and publications as well as in his later work for the Federal Government’s Department of Information. Hurley was part of a rising generation of globe trotting professional photojournalists(1). Their photographs were disseminated internationally through reproduction and cinematography, swamping the already prolific output and extent of the views trade.

Hurley however, remained indifferent to the humanism expressed in the illustrated magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s on. Nature and the great industrial works of man, rather than individuals, tend to dominate Hurley’s images. The emotional communication sought by The Family of Man exhibition at the close of his life, would perhaps have bewildered a man with views shaped by stoical and disciplined virtues appropriate to the British Empire at its height(2).

Born in Sydney, Hurley escaped as a lad of thirteen from the security of home (and the middle-class destiny as a lawyer hoped for him by his parents) to a job in the ironworks at Lithgow, west of the Blue Mountains. A foreman introduced him to photography and later, in Sydney, Hurley received technical help from two Pictorialist amateurs involved in the New South Wales Photographic Society, Henri Mallard (1884-1967) and Norman C. Deck.

Hurley began his professional career in the postcard boom of 1905-1910 as employee, then partner and finally owner of Cave and Co. He gained a reputation for novel postcards, such as trains steaming out of tunnels, night shots and technical achievements(3), holding a one-person show at KODAK Galleries in 1910 and helping to organise the Photographic Society’s big 1911 salon. Hurley apparently had little contact with Harold Cazneaux and no interest in the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ school of Pictorialism.

Henri Mallard was influential in Hurley’s partnership with Sydney Cave and in 1911 recommended Hurley take his own place as a candidate for the position of official photographer to the Australasian Antarctic expedition led by Dr Douglas Mawson (1882-1958). Hurley literally talked himself into the job on a short train journey with Mawson, over the more experienced candidate, Melbourne photographer Jack Cato. The Mawson expedition left on the Aurora from Hobart in December 1911. It was preceded by the ill-fated British Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913 under Captain Robert Scott (1868-1912) which resulted in the death of Scott and four members of his party in 1912.

With his appointment to Scott’s expedition, British photographer, Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935), an experienced and well-known travel photographer became the first official professional photographer to be sent to the Antarctic. Scott told Ponting that ‘he considered photography was of such importance in exploration that it was his intention to make a special department of the art'(4). Ponting regarded himself as an artist and was listed as ‘camera artist’ on the expedition roll(5). Many of the members of the expedition were amateur photographers and Ponting gave them further instruction.

Whatever the pure documentary or scientific role photography had to play on the expedition, it was also apparent to the fundraisers by this time, that photography, and the newer medium of film, could be crucial in representing the events to the public. Photography had at last joined with the tradition established by expedition artists of the great Pacific voyages of discovery centuries before. Their work had captured the imagination of the public in Europe and became an important source of revenue and a stimulus to further exploration.

Scott and his party suffered harrowing deaths on their return from a dash to be the first to reach the South Pole, which had resulted only in their discovery that Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) had beaten them to it a month before on 14 December 1911.

Ponting who had returned to Europe by mid 1912, only learnt of the polar tragedy in early 1913. His majestic and beautiful photographs of the Antarctic scenery, the expedition members and the animal life were a revelation in themselves but were also touched by the public knowledge of the fate of Scott and his party. When war broke out Ponting was encouraged to continue with his lectures and lantern slide and film presentations as an aid to the war effort. King George V, on seeing the film in May 1914, hoped that, it might be possible for every British boy to see the pictures as the story of the Scott expedition could not be too widely known among the youth of the nation for it would help to promote the spirit of adventure that had made the Empire(6). The heroism of the party was also seen as encouragement to the troops in Europe in 1915 when shown Ponting’s films(7).

Mawson and Hurley did not know of the losses of Scott’s expedition, or the monumental work of Ponting, when they faced their own difficulties and dangers on the Australasian expedition (during which Mawson lost two of his men, and nearly his own life). However, they too independently realised the role high quality photography could play on their return to civilisation. Mawson was evidently already an experienced photographer and used the new colour autochromes on the expedition(8).

The Antarctic experiences of Hurley and Ponting were basically similar; the ordinary difficulties of photography being magnified a thousand fold by the cruel weather, the lack of sunshine and daylight, the risk of frostbite if operations meant contact between skin and metal camera parts. As well, the unknown behaviour of the latest technology film and colour plates under such conditions could not before seen. Hurley suffered more physically rough conditions but he was a fitter and more natural explorer than Ponting, despite the latter’s wide travels in the Northern Hemisphere(9).

Hurley returned to Hobart by March 1913. His film Home of the Blizzard was being shown in Sydney by the end of the year with Hurley delivering a narration in person. His film and photographic work was desperately needed to help the expedition recoup costs. In a familiar pattern of restless activity, he soon set off on new journeys to Java to make a film for the promotion of travel cruises to that region and back to Antarctica to collect Mawson and his remaining team in November 1913. Following his return he was off again with photographer, explorer and showman Francis Birtles (1881-1941)(10) as cameraman for a film on Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Whilst in the north filming Into Australia’s Unknown with Birtles, Hurley was summoned to join the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition planned for 1914-1915 to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922). His fame had spread, for the financial syndicate backing the expedition made the employment of Hurley, and rights to any subsequent film, a condition of their sponsorship. It was to be the most exciting commission to an Australian photographer since Holtermann had sent Merlin to photograph Australia for his World Exposition in 1873.

Within five weeks Hurley was in Buenos Aires on board the Endurance, and by October the expedition was in the South Atlantic. This was where they were to stay for the ship became trapped for the winter in the icepacks. The spring brought disaster as the ship was crushed by the moving floes. Winter had not been conducive to much photography but the wreck of the ship was well recorded by Hurley in stills and film; some scenes were shot on the new Paget colour plates. Hurley, who by temperament was inclined to the view that man must earn a place by physical endurance against the might of nature, must have revelled in the natural ‘movie’ unfolding before his camera.

The crew of the Endurance were marooned on a strip of beach on Elephant Island for nearly a year. Many of Hurley’s negatives and films were destroyed by him and Shackleton to lessen the loads to be carried after the Endurance finally sank, leaving the crew on an ice floe. In a saga of adventure and good fortune, Shackleton and five crew eventually sailed in a small boat to South Georgia, traversed this island and alerted the Stromness Whaling Station of the plight of their comrades. Five months later Shackleton returned to collect his still unharmed team from Elephant Island. The film In the Grip of the Polar Ice, which included additional wildlife footage shot by Hurley during a further five weeks in South Georgia, was another triumph and saved the Shackleton expedition from insolvency.

Ponting’s photographs were shown as enlarged carbon prints at the Fine Arts Society in London in 1913 and Hurley also displayed still photographs in this attractive format. Many of Hurley’s images were manipulated by montaging elements from different negatives and the insertion of cloud effects. This gave some the character described recently as 'histrionic tableaux' and Hurley cannot be excused from failing to have confidence in the original photographs.

Certainly Ponting did not face the dangers of the Shackleton expedition, but neither would he have resorted to such a blatant appeal to popular taste. Be considered himself an artist but had no time for the fakery of the Pictorial School or even the selective focus of P. H. Emerson.

Carbon printing tends to glamorise the worst of photographs but in comparison Ponting was the far superior artist, often achieving dramatic photographs, without the montage that Hurley arrived at by combination printing(11). Ponting’s portraits of the Scott expedition members with their direct gaze and full frame compsitions also show up Hurley’s tendency to reduce the individual to a member of a species battling nature’s forces rather than the heroes the public wanted to see.

If Ponting was the greater artist, Hurley was the better businessman. As Shackleton left on his perilous voyage in an open boat to South Georgia, Hurley had the presence of mind not to be carried away by the sentiment of the occasion. He had Shackleton sign a document safeguarding Hurley’s rights to the film and photographic work. Ponting, operating on a gentleman’s agreement with a dead leader was largely cheated of financial rights to his Antarctic work. Hurley, ever willing to risk his life for adventure, would finally have not made photographs if they did not pay. In this attitude he was closer to the nineteenth century travelling photographers and Ponting to the art photographers of the early twentieth century, whose creed was to work for love of the medium alone(12).

By August 1917 Hurley was in the blasted wastelands of Ypres and the Battle of Passchendaele of the British Autumn Campaign. He held the rank of Captain as an official photographer, a title which was retained after the war. The photographic unit was under Captain (Dr) Charles Bean, the Official War Correspondent. Hurley’s established interest in ‘artistic verisimilitude’ rather than documentary historical truth led to conflicts with Bean. There were other photographers in the unit, Lieutenant (later Sir) George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958), an Arctic explorer and cinematographer(13) who had been with V. Stefansson’s Canadian expedition, was an assistant but in order to compromise with Hurley’s desire to produce publicity pictures and aesthetic results’, Bean put Wilkins in charge of documentary material(14).

The long, drawn-out campaign in France and the need to sustain morale at home had evidently modified the official resistance to reportage of the war in all of the allied services. The virtues of heroic sacrifice in a good cause that had been exemplified by the Antarctic expeditions, were in danger of crumbling as victory proved elusive and the carnage unprecedented in European history. Hurley extracted some concessions in the production of his combination pictures, which Bean privately called fakes, on threat of resigning his commission(15).

Hurley was transferred to Palestine at the end of 1917, which, compared to the war zone in France, was ‘more or less a holiday’(16). He returned to England in March 1918 to prepare an exhibition, Australian War Pictures and Photographs, including 136 of his photographs, at the Grafton Galleries. The exhibition included Paget plate colour photographs shown in a projector. Irritated that Hurley’s name was so prominent, seemingly an advertisement for himself rather than for the war effort, Bean made sure Hurley did not take the exhibition to Australia. Hurley resigned his commission in July 1918.

Hurley was by no means the only war photographer, but in the subsequent histories the publication of his images led to his close association with the war in the public imagination. The colour work has only recently been published to any great extent and had he lived he would no doubt have seen some justification for his concern for the work as ‘pictures’ as well as documents in the contemporary interest in art photography.

Hurley’s long career in films and stills, and in book illustration in the later years, included further trips to the Antarctic and a second commission as a photographer in World War Two. He also made important expeditions to New Guinea in the early 1920s. The photographs are excellent in detail, more comprehensive in coverage than Lindt’s New Guinea pictures, but less graceful and lacking in human contact for all his use of close-ups(17). Hurley’s film Pearls and Savages of 1922 was enormously popular and fulfilled in its fashion the role that Lindt’s Picturesque New Guinea had in the late nineteenth century.

Few of the images in official publications dealing with World War One contained images as dramatic as Hurley’s(18). Some of these publications were curious — an album of aerial photographs illustrating the devastation of the landscape during the Third Battle of the Somme was produced by the War Department(19). The war shown here was far from the heroics depicted by Hurley. The abstract patterns anticipate the photographers of the 1920’s who would seek abstract form rather than the picturesque atmosphere of Pictorialism.


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more on the early years of Frank Hurley


List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.97:Frank Hurley: Out in The Blizzard, Cape Denison, c.1912

P.98: Frank Hurley: The banded face of the Shackleton shelf, 1914

P.100: Herbert G. Ponting: The late Captain Scott at winter quarters, 1911

P.100: Frank Hurley: The morning of Passchendaele, 1917

P.101: Frank Hurley: Pilot Lt. G.C.Peters, Observer Lt. J.H. Traill, Palestine, 1918




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