James Francis (Frank) Hurley (1885-1962) is regarded as an extraordinary Australian photographer, adventurer, filmmaker and writer. His craving for exploration and adventure complemented his image-making to produce some of the most enduring achievements of Australian photography, and a profound impact on a young Australian film industry.
Hurley's most consequential work comes from his first two trips to Antarctica. Among his best known images, are those of the destruction of the Endurance , during Ernest Shackleton's legendary ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1914-16.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), The long, long night [the Endurance in the Antarctic winter darkness, trapped in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton expedition], 27 August 1915, colour glass lantern slide, 8.0 x 8.0cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23478581.
Hurley was much more than an Antarctic photographer, however. In addition to his incredible image-making activity in Australia, he was an official correspondent during the First and Second World Wars. In the 1920s, he also ventured into the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea at a time when few people of European descent had ever been there.
Hurley was a self-confessed ‘showman’. He embellished images to maximise their visual impact, for example by using the technique of composite printing (combining the best elements of several shots into one). While such manipulation was common in pictorial photography, Hurley was criticised for using it to enhance documentary images.
Years after his death, interest in Hurley's work continues. His adventures, photographs and films are the subject of various publications and exhibitions, and his material is keenly sought for private and public collections, internationally and locally.
Hurley's early life
Hurley was born in 1885 in Glebe, Sydney, to Margaret Agnes and Edward Harrison Hurley. At 13 years old, he jumped on a freight train to work in the Lithgow steel mill. Here, encouraged by his foreman, he developed an interest in photography.
Hurley returned to Sydney after two years away, where he worked at the docks, among other places, and taught himself the technical side of photography.
In 1905, Hurley found work as a photographer with Cave & Co., a postcard business. He quickly earned a reputation for the high technical quality of his photos, and for the great risks he took to get them, including standing in front of a steam train off old Hawkesbury River Bridge.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), [Passenger train hauled by a P class steam locomotive coming off old Hawkesbury River Bridge, Sydney to Newcastle], 1910, glass negative, 12 x 16cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23477933.
By 1908, Hurley was a partner, and in 1910 he mounted his first exhibition in Sydney. However his fortunes soon became mixed - first, the business suffered at the hands of a pre-war economic depression, and then Cave died.
Antarctica, a continent unknown
In 1911, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson hired Hurley as the Australasian Antarctic Expedition photographer. The pair shared a total of four Antarctic expeditions, but this first one was significant because it forged Hurley's photographic and cinematographic prowess, as well as his sheer courage and resourcefulness in difficult conditions.
Some of Hurley's best known images from the Mawson Expedition include wind-walking, such as Out in the blizzard at Cape Denison adjacent to winter quarters (1913), strange frozen landscapes, such as Ice mushroom, Mackellar Islets, Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1913), placing figures against immense ice cliffs for dramatic effect, such as A cavern beneath the coastal ice-cliffs with Whetter standing near entrance (1911-1914), and wildlife.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), Three lonely strays find a lost brother after a blizzard, [Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914], 1913?, glass, lantern B&W, 8.2 x 8.2cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23323343.
As expedition photographer, Hurley's images were not only important in documenting an unknown continent, but they also generated funds for future exploration. Hurley's expedition film, Home of the Blizzard (1913) was an astonishing first effort at cinematography. It reaped popular and financial success, and secured him a place on the Ernest Shackleton Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-16.
Hurley and Mawson's relationship ended acrimoniously in 1940 when Mawson threatened to sue Hurley for exploiting expedition photos. Hurley's embellished images (and stories) were at odds with Mawson's scientific approach.
Antarctic ‘warrior with a camera’
The aim of Shackleton's 1914 expedition was to cross Antarctica on foot. Instead, the expedition was marooned until 1916, with the ship Endurance destroyed by pack-ice. Hurley's images reflect the crew's 22-month ordeal.
Despite extremely difficult conditions, Hurley's daring and stamina to take pictures was unrelenting. According to Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, 'Hurley is a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.'
Aside from the famous images capturing the trapped Endurance from all angles at different stages of its demise, Hurley's other shots included the crew, e.g. The members who remained behind at Elephant Island (1916), the dogs, e.g. Lupoid, so named because of his wolfish appearance (1914-16), beautiful snowscapes, e.g. The crystal canoe (1916-17), and the launching of the James Caird from Elephant Island.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), [Ernest Shackleton, Captain Frank Worsley and crew setting out from Elephant Island, Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, Shackleton expedition], 1916, photograph gelatin silver, 24.2 x 31cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24777997.
Incredibly, after the expedition Hurley returned to South Georgia Island to complete his film footage. The resulting documentary In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice premiered in London in 1917 and began its Australian tour in 1919. It was another popular and financial success.
The ‘mad photographer’
Hurley served alongside George Hubert Wilkins as the first official photographer to the Australian Imperial Forces in the First World War. The troops dubbed him the ‘mad photographer’ because of his derring-do to get pictures. He took some of the only known colour photos of the war.
The images of the third battle of Ypres in Flanders are considered to be Hurley's major work of this period. They include ruined buildings, for example Looking through a ruined cathedral window on to a battlefield cemetery (1917); Australian troops, for example Horse-drawn Australian artillery silhouetted along the Poperinghe-Ypres Road, Flanders (1917); and the battered landscape, for example The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele (1917). The latter is a striking example of Hurley's use of composite printing, wherein he fuses a divine sunlight.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele [Passendale] showing Australian Infantry wounded around a blockhouse near the site of Zonnebeke Railway Station, 12 October 1917, photograph gelatin silver, 53.8 x 48.8cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24574133.
While Hurley believed his manipulation of images helped capture the reality of battle, the influential war correspondent and historian, Charles Bean, accused them of being fakes.
In October 1917, Hurley was assigned to the comparatively quieter Middle East. Here, he coordinated and shot re-enactments of events, including The Australian Light Horse preparing for the re-enactment of the famous charge at Beersheba (1910-62).
While in Cairo, Hurley met Antoinette Theirault-Leighton. They married in 1918, and soon after moved to Sydney where they had four children, raised mostly by Antoinette. Hurley's adventures were elsewhere...
Pearls and Savages
Between 1920 and 1923, Hurley made two long expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands and Papua. Hurley again melded adventure and image-making to produce the successful anthropological film, Pearls and Savages (1921), followed by the even more successful Pearls and Savages book.
Hurley's photographs similarly targeted the ‘armchair traveller’; conveying an exotic people and culture. For the Papuans, his images are an important visual record of that time.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), Four warriors of Aramia [Papua], 1910-62, slide: glass lantern. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23382019.
Following Pearls and Savages, Hurley was accused of exploiting the Papuans and using improper methods to collect artefacts for the Australian Museum, Sydney. As a result, he was refused entry to Papua to produce his two feature films, Jungle Woman (1925) and Hound of the Deep (1926), which were shot in Dutch New Guinea. Jungle Woman, which Hurley scripted and directed, was another film success.
Focus on film
Before settling into life in Australia (briefly), Hurley travelled with Mawson as part of the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929. He made two popular films, Southward ho with Mawson and Siege of the South (1931). In the 1930s, Hurley consolidated his films' success, making Australian documentary films. He worked for Cinesound for eight years, producing films that celebrated Australian achievement, including Symphony of Steel (1932) and A Nation Is Built (1938).
In 1940, Hurley returned to capturing war in the Middle East. He produced more than 60 newsreels covering military operations and VIP visits, and produced 11 films for the British Ministry of Information.
During this time, Hurley also took his own non-official images, focussing on the traditional culture, landscape and historic architecture.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), 2 Arabs N. Syria [a man and a woman wearing headdresses and scarves], 1939-45, negative: plastic, 8.5 x 12.5cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23565193.
Hurley's later years
Hurley returned to Australia in 1946. Other than the hugely successful publication of his book, Shackleton's Argonauts (1948), the definitive Hurley title of his later life was Australia: A Camera Study (1955).
Hurley's camera studies of Australia range from landscapes and primary industry to city portraits, social life and the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. He covered vast distances to produce these studies, satiating his desire for melding travel with image-making.
Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), Baobab trees, Carnarvon [Western Australia], 1910-62, negative: acetate b&w, 11.8 x 16.4cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an 23199263.
In 1961, at 75 years of age, Hurley journeyed across the Nullarbor, where he apparently had a stroke, but simply put it behind him. A year later, he returned home from an assignment, sat in his favourite armchair, where he stayed all night and died the next day. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and son.
During his 60-year career, Hurley took thousands of photographs, worked on more than 60 films and wrote more than 20 books. He enjoyed popular acclaim, commercial success and official recognition with a Polar Medal in 1919 and an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1941.
- National Library of Australia, Canberra
- Australian War Memorial, Canberra
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
- Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge
- Royal Geographical Society, London
- South Australian Museum, Adelaide
- James Francis (Frank) Hurley - Australian Dictionary of Biography
- Hurley's Antarctica - State Library of New South Wales
- Out in the blizzard at Cape Denison adjacent to winter quarters (1913)
- Ice mushroom, Mackellar Islets, Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1913)
- A cavern beneath the coastal ice-cliffs with Whetter standing near entrance (1911-1914)
- The members who remained behind at Elephant Island (1916)
- Lupoid, so named because of his wolfish appearance (1914-16)
- The crystal canoe (1916-17)
- Looking through a ruined cathedral window on to a battlefield cemetery (1917)
- Horse-drawn Australian artillery silhouetted along the Poperinghe-Ypres Road, Flanders (1917)
- The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele [Passendale] showing Australian Infantry wounded around a blockhouse near the site of Zonnebeke Railway Station (1917)
- The Australian Light Horse preparing for the re-enactment of the famous charge at Beersheba (1910-62)
- Pearls and Savages (1921)
- Home of the Blizzard (1913)
- Southward ho with Mawson (1929)
- Siege of the South (1931)
- A Nation is Built (1938)
- James Caird
- Ernest Shackleton
- Douglas Mawson
- Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-16
- Lionel Greenstreet (1889-1979) - Biographical notes
- British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929
- Ennis, Helen (2002), Man with a Camera. Frank Hurley Overseas, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
- Thompson, John (Introduction) (1999), Hurley's Australia. Myth, Dream, Reality, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
Last updated: 8th January 2009