“Hurley is a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.”
-Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance.
Born in 1885, James Francis (Frank) Hurley ran away from public school and hopped a train to work in a steel mill when he was thirteen, where he found his interest in photography. Encouraged by the mill foreman, Hurley taught himself the technical aspects of photography.
At age twenty, Hurley worked for a postcard business and was well regarded for the technical quality of his images – and for the dangerous lengths he would go to take them.
Like standing next to a moving steam engine.
Hurley was truly passionate about photography, and he was willing to take risks to get them; he was perfect candidate for an Antarctic expedition.
When Hurley heard word about Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, he was set on going, though he had no connections. Hurley found Mawson on a train, and for the duration of the trip, sold his character and skills to the Antarctic explorer.
His efforts where fruitful; two days later Hurley was invited to travel with Mawson’s Australasian Expedition to Antarctica.
Hurley accompanied The Australasian Antarctic Expedition From December 1911 to March 1913, during which he worked tirelessly under harsh conditions, though his enthusiasm for capturing the perfect shot remained throughout every hardship. His spirit was a valued asset to the team, and no doubt kept many men reminded of their greater mission when times seemed most dark and dire.
When he returned to Australia, Hurley assembled the Film Home of the Blizzard, chronicling Mawson’s expedition. Shortly after, he joined the party set out to retrieve Mawson in Antarctica, who had been stranded unexpectedly over the winter.
The Doomed Endurance
“All day we have been utilizing the ship as a battering ram.” Hurley clambers up a mast to get photos of the ship, which is “shattering the floes in grand style.”
-Frank Hurley, aboard The Endurance
Not long after returning with Mawson, Hurley was riding south again on Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Tans-Antarctic Expedition. It would be Frank Hurley who photographed the infamous destruction of the Endurance, as it was crushed in the icepack. Hurley dove into the icy waters to save his slides from the sinking ship. When the party was about to man-haul sleds to the coast, Shackleton allowed only 120 of his glass slides to be saved; around 400 where shattered because Shackleton worried Hurley would risk his life to retrieve them.
Hurley waited with the crew of the Endurance on Elephant Island while Shackleton and a small crew made a dangerous voyage 800 nautical miles to the nearest island with which help could be obtained; South Georgia. The party was eventually rescued in 1916, Hurley capturing the moment in the photograph bellow.
The "War Boy"
Frank Hurley’s career extended far beyond the South. His photography of World War I remains as one of the most potent historical recordings of the time. It is during the war he was dubbed “The Mad Photographer”, as his insistence for the perfect shot in the face of danger was readily displayed. Hurley took some of the only known color photographs of World War I.
An Early Practitioner of Photomanipulation
Long before the world knew of Photoshop, there was darkroom photography manipulation, and Hurley would often merge multiple shots capture the feeling of the moment. This was frowned upon by some historians, more notably Charles Bean who in Hurley's later career did not get a long.
A Life Well Lived
Frank Hurley's career span well beyond the stories of Antarctica and World War I. His death was 16 January 1962.
Recommended Reading & Resources
Kodak's noteworthy tribute to the Endurance Expedition:
The images of Frank Hurley’s photography are courtesy of The National Library of Australia, where many of Hurley’s Photographs can be viewed.
“Leaning on the Wind” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an2386866,
“Ernest Shackleton, Captain Frank Worsley and crew setting out from Elephant Island” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an970745 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/970745 “The Aurora” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an863520 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/863520 “Shakespeare” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an2384470 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2384470 “The end of the Shackleton Expedition ship ‘Endurance’” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an860066 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/860066 “A small ship came into sight; Wild gave orders to kindle the beacon.” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an2384058 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2384058 “Looking through a ruined cathedral window on to a battlefield cemetery” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an1866119 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1866119 “Death’s Highway, an exposed road in the battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, 1917.” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an6298236 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/6298236 “Australian Infantry wounded near Zonnebeke Railway Station, after the first battle of Passchendaele, October 12, 1917” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an6298250 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/6298250 “Frank Hurley climbs a rocky face in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an3885448 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/3885448 “Frank Hurley photographing fro the tip of the jib-boom of the Discovery, Banzare, 1929-1931” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an92416 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/92416 “Passenger Train hauled by a P class steam locomotive coming off old Hawkesbury River Bridge, Sydney to Newcastle, pre 1946” Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia, an1612418 http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1612418
When you're lost in the Wild, and you're scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you're sore as a boil, it's according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and . . . die.
But the Code of a Man says: "Fight all you can,"
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it's easy to blow . . .
It's the hell-served-for-breakfast that's hard.
- First verse, Robert W. Service, The Quitter
Robert Service unknowingly summarized the human response to many who explored Antarctica in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, roughly 1897-1922, but it was the British-Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson who recorded the poems inspiration in his account of survival crossing the vast white of George V Land.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was Australia’s first major scientific exploration endeavor beyond the Australian continent. The expedition successfully charted Antarctica’s coastline, and was the first expedition to use radio communication on the continent, which also allowed the expedition to make meteorological observations not previously available.
“The task of the geographer is to fill in the details provided by the navigator.”
Unlike many of Mawson’s historic counterparts in the Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration, Mawson was known for his drive to explore without the claim to glory other men of the era strived for. He was a man of science, onset with the noble task of enduring hardship in the pursuit of knowledge. Antarctica, being the indifferent, harsh, beautiful, and unpredictable vixen that she is, gave Mawson a gritty experience of survival, perseverance, and spirit in the endless white of George V Land anyways, an experience that he himself describes:
“Never have I come so near an end; never has anyone more miraculously escaped.”