Born in 1885 in the Sydney suburb of Glebe, James Francis “Frank” Hurley was an independent, ambitious lad with the uncommon initiative to teach himself photography. When the young art form crossed over to mainstream accessibility with the postcard fad in the early years of the 20th century, Hurley took full advantage. By his 25th birthday, he was already an expert technician, confident artist, and successful showman and raconteur.
Australia offered no shortage of picturesque landscapes and photographic opportunities, but Hurley was restless for adventure. So he talked his way into the photographer job on fellow Aussie Douglas Mawson’s 1911–13 exploration of Antarctica, winning the respect of the expedition leader and crew with his ingenuity, humor, and persistence. Hurley produced many excellent photographs, in addition to a film account of the journey, Home of the Blizzard, which attracted hordes of Sydney ticket-buyers.
Hurley and Mawson were not the only voyagers into the frozen, undocumented regions of the globe to recognize that still photos and motion pictures made for scientific purposes had public appeal and pecuniary potential. The veteran explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was able to finance part of his ambitious venture, the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, by selling the rights to a film to a prescient backer for 25,000 British pounds. His choice to chronicle the expedition: Frank Hurley.
When the Endurance left South Georgia in November 1914, it was loaded with 25 men, sleds, and a pack of hardy dogs, for Shackleton’s plan was to traverse Antarctica on foot. Another ship, the Aurora, was headed for the other side of the continent to drop additional stores of food. If all went well, the two teams would rendezvous at Beardmore Glacier.
All did not go well, beginning with dense pack ice in the Weddell Sea that slowed the Endurance’s pace from the outset. As conditions worsened, the expedition’s mission had to be jettisoned and the survival of every man was thrown into question. But Hurley’s spirits and work ethic remained top-notch. He reveled in solving problems creatively and efficiently and became energized by the difficult constraints and forbidding climate.
“[W]ith cheerful Australian profanity he perambulates alone aloft & everywhere, in the most dangerous & slippery places he can find, content & happy at all times but cursing so if he can get a good or novel picture,” wrote the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley. “Stands bare & hair waving in the wind, where we are all gloved and helmeted, he snaps his snaps or winds his handle turning out curses of delight & pictures of Life by the fathom.”
For all the grandeur and beauty of the images Hurley composed and captured in South, it’s impossible for us in our comfortable seats to comprehend the frigid and dangerous conditions in which he worked. The famous nighttime photo of the Endurance, which required some 20 flashes to light, entailed hours of work in temperatures 35 degrees below zero and colder.
South is not distinguished by character development. There are no defined individuals. All these years later, we don’t return to Hurley for revealing human portraits or emotional insight but rather for visual poetry—in the landscapes and in Hurley’s drawings, which are clearly visible in the British Film Institute’s fine restoration of South—and the iconic, one-of-a-kind images of the Endurance in the ice fields, breaking through the Antarctic layers and, finally, captive and crushed by the forces of nature.
“I shall ever remember vividly this afternoon,” he wrote in his diary on October 26, 1915. “At 6 p.m., the pressure develops an irresistible energy…. The ship groans and quivers, windows splinter, whilst the deck timbers gape and twist. Amid these profound and overwhelming forces, we are the absolute embodiment of helpless futility.”
Hurley had done a daunting amount of work in the first year of the expedition, developing, preserving, and storing his photographs and film. And, he had to act decisively to save them when the ship was going down. This was no small task, for he had produced hundreds of glass-plate negatives.
“I hacked through the thick walls of the refrigerator to retrieve the negatives stored therein,” he wrote a week later. “They were located beneath four feet of mushy ice and by stripping to the waist and diving under I hauled them out.”
One week after that, Hurley and Shackleton spent a day together going through the images and choosing the best. With just three lifeboats available, there would be no way to accommodate all the weight. The men selected 120 shots, with Hurley destroying approximately 400. “As a negative was rejected, I would smash it on the ice to obviate all temptation to change my mind,” Hurley said later. (He also had to leave his heavy cinematography equipment.)
For several months, Hurley and Shackleton shared a tent on the ice floes. “I have a great admiration for the chief,” the photographer wrote. “He is one of the finest characters I have ever been fortunate to come in contact with.” For his part, Shackleton didn’t hesitate to transfer responsibility for the exploitation of all films and photographic reproductions to Hurley in case the expedition leader perished on his fateful journey with five crewmen in a 20-foot boat across the 800 miles to South Georgia.
Stuck on Elephant Island with the majority of the crew while Shackleton sailed for help, Hurley couldn’t shoot that dramatic event (or Shackleton’s four rescue attempts). He subsequently found it necessary to augment the footage he did have with a five-week trip to South Georgia in 1917 to film landscapes and wildlife.
When Hurley finally returned home, World War I was raging, and, a few months later, he was dispatched to Flanders as official war photographer to the Australian Imperial Force. After the armistice, he completed work on the film In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice and, in 1919, embarked on a successful tour of Australia.
Hurley later described In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice as “a world beater and a good money spinner: how could it be otherwise when I had a shipwreck, men marooned on drifting ice floes, and one of the greatest boat voyages in history as subjects for my camera.”
Today, the film is known around the world as South. The reasons are lost in the icy mists of history, but it’s likely the title was changed by the English rights-holder to match Shackleton’s 1919 book, South: The Endurance Expedition to Antarctica. Losing a sale by confusing book buyers or moviegoers was a cardinal offense, even back then.
Hurley went on to make a number of documentaries and narrative films in the 1920s and ’30s, but his career is defined by consistent success as a still photographer. He published several well-received volumes on Australia and, of course, never quite escaped (nor did he want to) his association with Antarctica. Hurley made six trips altogether to the chilly continent, the last two with Mawson’s British, Australian, and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) between 1929 and 1931.
“Frank Hurley and I were both born to the age of the heroic tradition,” fellow photographer Jack Cato wrote in Hurley’s obituary for Australian Popular Photography in 1962. “We were both fired with the Spirit of Adventure; we were both happy in the knowledge that the camera was the key that would open that Magic Door.”
Michael Fox is a critic and journalist, as well as teaches documentary classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a member of the S.F. Film Critics Circle.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Stephen Horne
Narration by Paul McGann