While attending a Book Fair in Kilkenny recently, my eye was drawn to a handsomely produced volume with a green cover blocked with gilt lettering. The dramatic title of the book was “Pearls and Savages - Adventures in the Air on land and sea in New Guinea” and the author was Frank Hurley. The foreword written by the publisher, extolled the virtues and abilities of the author. I was particularly drawn to the following quote about Hurley “in an age when human efforts so largely tends towards making life a communal and undividualistic affair, the figure of a man who desires solitude and experience of penetrating unexplored country, stands forth unique and somewhat in congress. Such a one is Captain Frank Hurley of Australia”. The book was published in 1924, ten years after Frank Hurley as a young photographer had set out on Ernest Shackleton’s expedition south in the first attempt to cross the Southern Continent, the Antarctic.
I have written before of the extraordinary tale of courage and endurance wrought by Shackleton and his men in their escape from the clutches of the icy wastes of Antarctica to eventual salvation in 1916 and the return home to the War weary continent of Europe.
What struck me about the book was the fact that notwithstanding the perils which Hurley and his companions in the Antarctic had endured, it had not quenched Hurley’s thirst for adventure and exploration. On his return to Europe after his rescue from the Antarctic Ice, Hurley, then nearly 31 arrived in London in 1917 as perhaps the most famous Australian photographer of his day. His film “South”, the record of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, was shown to great acclaim and soon afterwards, he was appointed an official photographer to the Australian army, then serving in Flanders in Belgium.
Hurley’s introduction to the Battlefields of Western Europe was to be the third battle of Ypres thereafter to be christened Passchendale. It was one of the most costly, in human terms of the battles of the Western Front in the First World War. Within three months of his commencement, approximately a quarter of a million men on the allied side had been killed, wounded or missing. It is extraordinary to think that Hurley who had served many thousands of miles away in the Antarctic with the Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton would be then serving in the western front in the area where so many men from Athy died.
As a man who had risked his life in the Antarctic, Hurley often jeopardised his own personal safety in an attempt to capture the experience of Front Line Life. In his diaries for the period, he records one experience in which he almost lost his life. “Yesterday we damn near succeeded in having an end made to ourselves. In spite of heavy shelling by the Boche, we made an endeavour to secure a number of shell burst pictures. I took two pictures by hiding in the dug out and rushing out and snapping. We eluded shells until just about 150 yards away, when a terrific, angry, rocket like shriek warned us to duck. This we did by throwing ourselves flat in a shell hole half filled with mud. Immediately, a terrific roar made us squeeze ourselves into a nook as small as possible, and up went timber, stones, shells and everything else in the vicinity. A dump of four or five shells had received a direct hit. The splinters rained on our helmets and the debris and mud came down like a cloud. The frightful concussion absolutely winded us but we escaped injury and made off through mud and water as fast as we possibly could”.
At wars end, having married the French Opera singer, Antoinett Theirault-Leighton, whom he met on a tour in Cairo in 1918, he returned to Australia.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Hurley was almost constantly travelling seeking out new places and people to photograph including those in New Guinea. He also published a number of books including “Argonauts of the South”, published in 1925, which chronicles his extraordinary adventure in the Antarctic Wastes.
The Antarctic however, was to prove an irresistible draw and he joined the Australian Explorer Douglas Mawson’s Expedition to the Antarctic in 1930. This was Hurley’s sixth Christmas spent amid the ice of the Antarctic. The expeditions equipment included a Gypsy moth sea plane which allowed him to take unique footage for the first time of peaks in the Antarctic Continent that would become known as the David, Mason and Casey Ranges. Having returned to Australia once again, Hurley worked tirelessly in the production of a feature film of the expedition titled “Southward - Ho with Mawson” and like his film on Shackleton’s Expeditions, it was an instant success.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Hurley once again offered his services to the Australian Army.
He was now almost 56 years of age and the army authorities seemed reluctant to commission him given his age. Hurley was nothing if not persistent and after three or four attempts he eventually received a commission from the Government to cover the participation of the Australian forces in the battle for North Africa. He arrived in North Africa at a difficult time for the allied forces who had suffered a number of set backs and defeats. However, Hurley’s time in North Africa would bring him up to the defeat of the German Forces at El Alamein which herald the beginning of the end of the German supremacy in North Africa.
After the war, Hurley’s interest turned back towards his native country from which he had spent so much time away from the preceding thirty years and until the end of his life in 1962, he documented every aspect of Australian life. At the date of his death he had been a professional photographer for almost 58 years.
The National Museum of Ireland, at Collins Barrack’s in Dublin, is currently holding an exhibition on Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition up until October of this year. One of the principal delights of the exhibition is the extraordinary photography of Frank Hurley. Allied with the pictures are a selection of items personal to Shackleton and the members of the Expedition including a number of the prize exhibits from Athy Heritage Centre which have been loaned to the National Museum for the period of the Exhibition. To look at these pictures at a remove of 90 years is to wonder at the skill of an extraordinary photographer and man.