The nineteenth century era of colonial exploration and discovery fronted a desperate race among the leading world nations to take a stake in the rapidly diminishing spoils of a shrinking planet. Children of every generation since that time have thrilled to accounts of the adventures spawned by this headlong rush to claim the yet unknown parts of planet earth. But there is one such story that once it caught fire in the public imagination, has never burned out. It is more than a tale of colonial greed. It is one of sacrifice and heroism and its hold on the public imagination is due largely to this young man:
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s third polar expedition, (the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917”) an attempt to walk across the frozen continent and its polar region with a crew of 27 (a failed venture like his two previous attempts) has been the subject of many books, feature films and documentaries. Within several years of the mission’s end many members of the crew published breathtaking memoirs of struggle, camaraderie, life-threatening deprivation, and rescue after months spent on Elephant Island, a barren, rocky outcropping nearly 800 miles over treacherous seas from the nearest habitable outpost, a Norwegian whaling station on South Georgia Island.
It was Shackelton and five hand-picked members from the crew that sailed in a re-rigged lifeboat from the lost mother ship, Endurance, who made that unbelievable voyage to find help, even as Hurley and 21 of the crew waited for over three months, somehow surviving on diminishing supplies of seal and penguin while they huddled against the ferocious elements in shelter that was not much more than two overturned small boats.
Most of the record of this heroic adventure, starting with its promising departure from Plymouth, England on August 8, 1914, only four days after the outbreak of WWI, until its end, as all of the still stranded team members were transferred aboard a Chilean vessel, the Yelcho, almost two years later, might easily have disappeared into the archives of government historical societies. Such was the fate of many such contemporaneous ventures. But none of those expeditions included as documentarian a photographer with the technical and artistic acumen nor the courage of Frank Hurley.
When Englishman Shackleton engaged Hurley, the young Australian was already a veteran of the Mawson Antarctic expedition of 1911-14. Born in a suburb of Sydney on October 16, 1885, Hurley was 26 when he joined the Mawson expedition. Hurley had run away from home at age 14 and had found work on the nearby Sydney docks. Within three years he bought his first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie, and taught himself the rudiments of photography. In a much later diary entry Hurley recalled the thrill of immersing himself in darkroom chemicals: “From the time I first gazed wonderingly at the miracle of chemical reaction on the latent image during the process of development, I knew I had found my real work and a key, could I become its master, that would perhaps unlock the portals of the undiscovered world.” Such unbridled enthusiasm sustained him throughout his decades long career.
Shackleton had heard of Hurley’s work with Mawson, had seen a film he had made of the venture, and offered him the position of the expedition’s photographic and motion picture documentation. Hired sight unseen, Hurley met Shackleton in Buenos Aires where the Endurance was making its final preparations. For Shackleton, much of the investor money entrusted to this expedition was to be recouped by sales of photos and a film of the venture. Hurley was thus a key player. Aware of Shackleton’s desperate need for a photographer for this polar venture, Hurley was able to negotiate a 25% participation on all film revenues.
So thorough was Hurley’s commitment to recording the voyage and trek that only months after his rescue, he returned to South Georgia Island for additional photos and filming, to record the only part of the expedition that he had missed while trapped on Elephant Island. You can look at a number of books and films spawned by Hurley’s work by scrolling to the bottom of the page on this site:
There are also numerous accounts here about Shackleton and the complete expedition. But there are two that have Frank Hurley’s life and work as their focus. The first is a biography by Alasdair McGregor, currently out of print:
The other is South With Endurance, compiled from the archives of several historical societies in England and Australia and with essays by Shane Murphy, Gael Newton, and Michael Gray. This volume is rich with several hundred pages of Hurley’s black-and-white photographs as well as a selection of his Paget color plates. There are also sections on his techniques and an equipment manifest and description. It has provided much of the research for this essay:
The Endurance left the port of Buenos Aires on October 26 and reached the final supply outpost of Grytviken on South Georgia Island on November 14. It steamed out of Cumberland Bay on December 5, 1914 headed for the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic continent. A second ship, the Aurora, would retrieve the expedition trekkers at Cape Evans on the Ross Sea, on the other side of the continent. But within a day of raising anchor the ominous warnings of early pack ice became a reality and progress was slowed. The hull of the Endurance, still on its maiden voyage, was built to crush through most ice. But by February 14, 1915, the very eve of Shackleton’s 41st birthday, even the optimistic leader had to admit that the ship was caught fast in pack ice for the rest of the season; the ice ridges were from 12 to 18 feet thick. Thus began the ordeal as well as the detailed day-to-day documentation by Hurley’s still and film cameras.
Hurley was well prepared for his thorough documentation of the expedition. There are slightly varying manifests of his equipment but he certainly had at least half a dozen still cameras, mainly full glass plate (8 ½ x 6 ¼ in. Folmer & Schweigs) as well as a 5 x 7 in. glass plate, a panoramic camera, several roll film cameras in formats of 127mm and 118mm. including a Kodak Folding Vest Pocket Camera which was the only one he was able to take after they were forced to abandon the sinking Endurance. It was this latter camera that recorded all the images of the subsequent ordeal.
While still living on board Endurance for almost ten months, even as flow ice began to crush the hull, Hurley had a fully equipped still and motion picture lab and darkroom, (the ship’s walk-in refrigerator) and despite the freezing weather he was able to develop and print his work, the motion picture film hand processed 10 feet at a time. Before having to abandon his Prestwich No. 5 Cinecamera as well as all the large format cameras and all but 120-150 of the developed glass plate negatives, Hurley made one final cine record of Endurance’s demise. It occurs at six minutes into this video clip. The entire 10-minute clip is a testament to the breadth of Hurley’s motion picture work.
A more detailed description of how and what Hurley was able to rescue from the sinking ship is described here:
Again, there are conflicting records of what was saved. But it is known that about 500 photographs survive in the various archives. The rescued glass plate negatives were packed along with the motion picture negatives in zinc-lined, soldered tins. About 400 glass plates were intentionally destroyed when the ship was abandoned and the decision was made to set out for land. Only three to five spools of roll film were taken, along with the Kodak Pocket Camera (12 exposures per roll), and nearly 60 images made after the wreck of the Endurance sank, survived. In the darkroom on board ship Hurley had made master prints of 286 images in black and white and had mounted them in a book he called the “Green Album.” Also, 18 Paget color plate screens were saved. Hurley carried all of this visual record over hundreds of miles of ice and across rough seas in fragile lifeboats to Elephant Island where he preserved it for another four and a half months, until rescue came on August 30, 1916.
A Kodak website recounts Frank Hurley’s engagement in the expedition and includes more information about his work on the expedition:
As moving as Hurley’s record of the expedition’s human ordeal may be, his work was also on the cutting edge of photographic technique. He made several night exposures of Endurance, ice-bound. This one was taken by using over 20 flashes on the night of August 27, 1915.
The 18 Paget color screen plates record a quite rare and still new color technique. Hurley had first employed the Paget process on the Mawson Expedition. Its main asset was that it was several times faster in exposure time than the more proven Autochromes. The intricate technical skill required in this process is described in a Wikipedia entry:
The system used two glass plates, one of which was the color screen plate while the other was a standard black-and-white negative plate. The color screen plate comprised a series of red, green and blue filters, laid down in a regular pattern of lines to form an réseau, or matrix. Because the negatives of the time required long exposure times, the colors in the screen plate were diluted to let more light through to the negative, resulting in a quicker exposure. A viewing screen with more intense color filters was used in combination with the developed positive to project a composite color image.
The color screen plate was usually sold as a separate item to the panchromatic negatives. A single color screen plate could be placed into the camera and used to expose many negatives in succession. The resultant negatives looked like standard black and white negatives, with a noticeable crosshatch patterning in areas of strong color. Transparency positives could be made from the system’s panchromatic negatives by contact printing; these positives were then bound in register with a color viewing screen of the same type as used for exposure, to reproduce the image in color. Multiple copies could be printed from each negative, the resultant positives each being registered with their own color viewing screens.
Here are several of the Paget color images:
Almost as remarkable as the sheer survival of the expedition members (not a single one lost) is what Hurley accomplished immediately afterwards. His return to South Georgia Island to continue his work in still and film only a few weeks after the ordeal, enabled him to complete the film. At the same time he also made 72 more Paget color plates.
The film, now titled In the Grip of the Polar Pack-ice was shown to great acclaim. Shackelton was able to pay off all expenses of the expedition. Frank Hurley’s work was indeed the linchpin.
Unbelievably, the now “Captain” Hurley went into battle on the French and Belgian fronts of the war. He landed in Flanders, made photos at the 3rd Battle of Ypres and Chateau Wood, and then moved on to the front in Palestine.
This was only the beginning of a film and photography career that lasted almost to the day of his death in 1962 at age 78. He made several more polar expeditions, took stills and film in New Guinea, in Australia, and even returned to the front in WWII. Here is a photo of him in Palestine in 1941. He is on the left of the camera, wearing glasses.
After the war Hurley published several best selling, high-quality books of his photos, especially Shackelton’s Argonauts in 1948. He also published several memoirs and was active on the lecture circuit. Always a naturalist, he argued for species preservation and against whaling.
“Straight” photography was never an imperative for Hurley and shortly after the Shackelton venture he began to experiment in his photography with manipulated images. He sandwiched negatives and composited elements from others; he employed elaborate printing techniques, all in service of the aesthetic of his vision. As early as June 1911 he wrote an article in the Australian Photo-Review. He said that camera art is:
…not an exact representation of nature, and a picture is not a record of things in view… Regard your camera as an artist does his brush. Think that you hold a piece of apparatus worthy of the same possibilities as the artist… Your camera is but a piece of mechanical apparatus. You are its intellect.
Here is a photo of the motion picture camera that Hurley acquired in 1929 just before his third Antarctic trip. He used it for the next 30 years.
Though it was a youthful adventure in a lengthy career that covered many assignments worldwide, Frank Hurley’s name will always be linked foremost to the Shackelton expedition. It was more than a coming of age experience for this stalwart photographer. It framed a life spent at the edges of existence, bearing witness to dramatic world events that are to most of us merely pages in a coffee table book. His is the embodiment of the life that most of us will never experience.