Wednesday, 6 July 2011

the photographs of frank hurley

a radiant turret lit by the midsummer midnight sun
Made during the first Australasian Antarctic expedition, 1911-14
After seeing the film made by Herbert Ponting recently, I started looking a bit more into the other major figure to document the great early Antarctic expeditions, namely the Australian Frank Hurley. Hurley accompanied Shackleton on the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 on the Endurance, where he worked as expedition photographer, but he also had the same role on other voyages, such as the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14.

I think I find Hurley's work more interesting because it seems more varied and often, more intimate, showing details on a human scale. There are of course many wonderful and breathtakingly beautiful images of ice landscapes by Hurley that display grandeur and are intended to create a sense of awe in the viewer, such as in the image above, but his pictures often also seem to contain details that pleasingly undermine this distance from the subject, or which manage to convey some of the physicality of place that can be difficult in the stilled form of the photograph.
Out in the blizzard at Cape Denison adjacent to winter quarters, 1913, Carbon print
For example, the famous image of two men hunched against the wind, ice axes in hand as they struggle to move in the midst of a blizzard (above) is well known, and has almost become emblematic of the difficulty of conditions in the Arctic and Antrctic. Below is a less well known image made on deck where the structures of the ship grow a coat of rime frost and ice.

But I'm far more interested in this completely puzzling image (below) where an unidentified activity semms to be being carried out. Skis are plunged into the snow in an antarctic dusk and an ethereal light emanates from a hole in the snow below. I simply can't comprehend fully what's going on in the picture, and this seems to me to be highly unusual in the images both Hurley and Ponting brought back home in that nothing is "learnt" about the antarctic from this image. There appears to be no
scientific/heroic/pictorialist basis to the creation of the picture (unlike most of the others) and the purpose of the image remains unclear. (I'm guessing that perhaps a snow hole has been dug, with the occupants' artificial light illuminating the entrance, but it's still significantly obscure to continue to intrigue and hold my attention).

The image below is perhaps more conventional, but still I like the presence of the man, looking out to the ice, Caspar David Friedrich-like. With his hands in his pockets, and wearing a balaclava but no coat, braces visible, he stands so very casually as he surveys the ice and the unending immensity of the cold horizon beyond. He looks as though he might just have been passing by for a stroll when Hurley made the picture. Perhaps he was.

He also made a series of early colour images of the Expedition using the then-popular Paget process of colour photography. The colours are rather weak, and the autochrome process would supersede it, but it still comes as something of a shock to see them at all. Even it's failures hold beauty.

Mid-summer, 1915
Unidentified landscape


  1. Thanks for this post. I love thirds images -- and I had no idea about the gorgeous color ones.

    My take on the one with the skis is that he took it either out of a purey aesthetic instinct, because the glowing snow was artistically alluring, or perhaps to show how the built (temporary?) snow cave shelters while on expeditions away from the main camp. interesting that there seems to begat h some Saudis the tunnel to let air in -- I suppose they would have salvaged these from the ship.

    Great post!