This week I want to tell you about some of my “Hurley” coincidences.
In 1989, whilst studying photography at Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, my history of photography lecturer, Charles Page, told the class about Frank Hurley, Australia’s very own WWI war photographer.
The story that captured my imagination at the time was Hurley’s journey to the Antarctic in 1914 with Ernest Shackleton’s expedition and of how a big freeze trapped them in the ice for two years. With their ship ‘Endurance’ breaking up, Hurley faced the prospect of losing all his large format glass plate negatives. So after selecting only 120 Hurley smashed the rest in preparation for the difficult journey out of their predicament.
Then a few weeks ago on a visit to the historic village of Morpeth my recent Hurley coincidences started. After an early morning walk and coffee in a local café, I had a chance conversation with the young barista who was studying photography. He told me to visit The Photographer’s Studio before leaving for home.
The shop was mostly giftware, so as I was about to leave I glanced up at a slideshow only to see images of Anzac Day. Because of my WWI photo project I couldn’t help but ask the photographer about the images, and told him of my WWI project. He then showed me a copy of a photobook by local Newcastle policeman, Juan Mahony, The Digger’s View.
Mahony has collected thousands of WWI glass plate negatives, including some of Frank Hurley’s. He has digitised and coloured a selection of the negatives to create a realistic look at the soldiers and WWI battles in living colour for the first time. It was the last copy, so naturally I bought the book. I have poured over the book but no photo of my grandfather, Harold, but there are several of his 34th battalion.
Later that same week through work I attended an HSC student study day at Sydney University for my employer, English Teachers’ Association NSW (ETA), only to discover one of the modules being studied for the HSC this year is Simon Nasht and Anna Cater’s documentary film, Frank Hurley, The Man Who Made History.
I was lucky enough to attend Kerri-Jane Burke’s lecture to the students on the film. How extraordinary that this topic is being studied by HSC students exactly 100 years after Hurley was slogging it out in 1917 in the mud and blood with his tripod and large format camera capturing and creating such evocative WWI images.
You then cannot imagine my surprise, having listening to the lecture, to discover that one of the young ushers assisting ETA in the presenters’ break out room on the day, is related to Frank Hurley!
Lastly, before he died, my Uncle Bruce, an ex-cab driver for Manly Warringah Cabs, had told me that he used to drive Frank Hurley regularly in his later years. I feel surrounded by Frank Hurley and wonder if he and Harold ever crossed paths during their time on the Western Front?
Born in Glebe in 1885, young Frank was working as a steel worker in Lithgow at age 15 when he bought his first camera, a box brownie. By sixteen Hurley was already a darkroom expert and creative photographer, and by 20 a partner in a picture-card business. According to Lennard Bickel’s book In Search of Frank Hurley published in 1980, Hurley was already displaying ‘daring, originality and imagination that were to become the Hurley hallmark’.
Hurley joined Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition in 1911 and then Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition from 1914-1916. Afterwards on the Western Front Hurley clashed with Charles Bean, Australia’s WWI official historian, because he used composite images to create realistic scenes of the battlefields.
What I didn’t know in 1989 when I heard the extraordinary tale of the Endurance and being trapped on the polar ice, was that after being rescued and discovering the full impact of the war that had unfolded in Europe while they were stranded, Captain Hurley went from the frozen wastes of the South Pole to the horrific bloody battlefields of the Western Front almost immediately.
Arriving in Flanders on 23 August 1917, as the official Australian war photographer, Hurley was very near Passchendaele photographing on 12 October 1917 when my grandfather Harold was wounded! I learnt this only very recently from reading excerpts from Hurley’s diaries in Hurley at War, published by The Fairfax Library in 1986.
In an article written titled Over the Top for SMH Spectrum 12-13 June 2004 on war photography Paul Byrnes writes that ‘Photographers have been faking war pictures almost since the first cameras went to war, but the blame is not all theirs. The public hunger for war pictures fuels the practice and we demand that they get close.’
Byrnes goes on to say ‘Some of the most stunning images ……that Hurley took on the Western Front in 1917 are composites of several negatives.’ He quotes Hurley “To get war pictures of striking interest and sensation is like attempting the impossible…Anyone standing on the parapet of a frontline trench in daylight was likely to be shot by a sniper within seconds.” Byrnes describes some of Hurley’s ‘tableaux of battle’ as being ‘among the most beautiful and terrible depictions of fighting in WWI’.
In his book Glass Warriors, The Camera at War Duncan Anderson shares from Hurley’s diary ‘None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by the camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered – the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke – shells will not burst where required – yet the whole elements of a picture are there could they but be brought together and condensed.’
On 12 October 1917 Hurley described the mud…..”sometimes to the knee in sucking, tenacious slime – a fair hell of a job under ordinary conditions, but with a heavy camera up and being shelled……..shells lobbed all around and sent their splinters whizzing everywhere – God knows how anybody can escape them….”
And again in another quote from 12 October 1917 “Under a questionably sheltered bank lay a group of dead men. Sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living; but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock that it was hard to differentiate. Still the whole way was just another of the many byways to hell one sees out here, and which are so strewn with ghastliness….”
If you want to read more about this amazing photographer and explorer here are some links: