fig. 1
Frank Hurley

Gazing at the grey curtains of fog from the deck of our ship, so tiny in the surrounding vastness, we felt like Argonauts whose quest had led to the World’s brim. Slowly we crept on, filled with wonder and expectancy … Through a rift we made out the glimmering sheen of a colossal berg.

–Frank Hurley, Argonauts of the South (1925)

 

 

In Argonauts of the South (1925), Australian photographer Frank Hurley (1885–1962) recounts his experiences in 1911, on what was the first of three major voyages of exploration to Antarctica.1 Hurley returned to the Antarctic in 1915, as a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Imperial Transatlantic Expedition, and then again in 1929, as part of Douglas Mawson’s British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). Among the numerous photographs and documentary films that Hurley made between c.1905 and his death in 1962 is a group of remarkable carbon photographs from this voyage, which he undertook as part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–14). The most spectacular works in this group are a series of images showing the indomitable icebergs found in the region and the Shackleton Ice Shelf fringing Antarctica. One of the most striking photographs from this group is A turreted berg, 1913, which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (fig. 1).2 The photograph was purchased at the Christie’s, London, auction of artefacts of ‘Exploration and Travel’, 17 September 1999 (lot 276). It is interesting to note that in recent years there has been a great deal of material published on early Antarctic exploration and that this sale attracted significant attention.

In 1911, following his rejection by Captain Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, Douglas Mawson (1882–1958) put together his own team – the Australasian Antarctic Expedition – to investigate that part of Antarctica that lay to the south of Australia.3 See F. Jacka and E. Jacka (eds), Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries, Sydney, 1988. The team’s brief included coastal and interior mapping, meteorological studies and the collection of specimens of flora and fauna. The party was largely made up of Australian and New Zealand scientists, but also included a number of British and European members. In addition, Mawson sought to appoint an official photographer and cinematographer.

The importance of photography to Mawson’s project cannot be underestimated. Many members of his expedition were keen amateur photographers, and their work was to be of great importance in illustrating scientific papers and various personal accounts of the trek. However, it was hoped a professional photographer would enable Mawson to recoup some of the initial outlay for the expedition, through photography exhibitions and sales, lantern slide shows and film screenings. Such events were hugely popular with the public at this time.4 The work of Frank Hurley, like that of his English counterpart Herbert Ponting (1871–1935), would indeed capture the imagination of the public and would become both an important source of revenue and, in turn, a stimulus to further exploration (see G. Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Canberra, 1988, p. 97). Herbert Ponting was the first official photographer appointed to an Antarctic expedition, accompanying the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910–13. He joined Captain Scott on his ill-fated attempt to be the first person to reach the South Pole.

In the spring of 1911 Frank Hurley read of Mawson’s intentions to travel to Antarctica. Hurley was determined to be part of the expedition. It was, in his view, a logical progression in his career:

In this I saw the possibility of applying my abilities realising cherished dreams. I sent in my credentials and determined, even [if] I had to stow away aboard the Expedition’s vessel, to secure a post.5 F. Hurley, Argonauts of the South, London, 1925, p. 12.

Learning that Mawson was visiting Sydney, Hurley made an appointment to meet with him at Central Station, prior to the explorer’s return to Melbourne. Rather than be limited to a brief, train-side interview, Hurley purchased a ticket to Moss Vale and joined Mawson in his carriage. Over the next few hours the eminent scientist was convinced by Hurley that not only was he competent as a photographer but that he was also resourceful, and well suited to the rigours of living and working in Antarctica. Three days after his meeting with Mawson, Hurley received a telegram that read simply: ‘You are accepted’.6 Douglas Mawson, telegram to Frank Hurley, cited in Hurley, p. 13.

Within weeks of departing from Hobart on 2 December 1911, the crew and passengers of the ship Aurora sailed into the extreme regions of the Southern Ocean, the domain of the most sublime Antarctic phenomenon – the iceberg. Throughout the recorded history of the area, sailors and explorers have documented the majestic size and beauty of the icebergs and the sheer scale of these floating masses of ice inspires both awe and fear.7 The largest iceberg ever documented was that sighted on 1 November 1956, and was calculated to measure approximately 208 by 60 miles (335 by 97 kilometres) (see J. Stewart, Antarctica: An Encylopedia, vol. 1, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990, p. 486). In 1840, the French explorer J.-S. C. Dumont d’Urville passed through what Frank Hurley later referred to as ‘the dread sea of icebergs’. 8 Hurley, p. 103. Dumont d’Urville was moved to write: ‘The spectacle which presented itself to our gaze was at once grand and terrifying. One could imagine oneself in the narrow streets of a city of giants’.9 J.-S. C. Dumont d’Urville, cited in P. S. Hosley, Antarctica: Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, London, 1992, p. 118. Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, London, 1992, p. 118. Twenty years after the French navigator had sailed through the region, Arthur Dobree, an amateur artist en route to Australia from England, produced a charming series of watercolour studies of icebergs in the Southern Ocean (fig. 2). The sight of icebergs moved even normally understated and unsentimental men of science to comment. On the outward voyage of the Aurora, Alec Kennedy, magnetician for the expedition, declared the first iceberg sighted a ‘magnificent introduction to the ice to come. The colours were beyond description, all shades of blue’.10 Alec L. Kennedy, diary, 29 January 1911, cited in P. Ayres, Mawson: A Life, Melbourne, 1999, p. 61.

Frank Hurley was greatly excited by his first encounter with the icy leviathans, and in his diaries he wrote extensively of his early sightings. On his first voyage to Antarctica, the icebergs presented a novel and yet treacherous subject matter. Hurley, who was building his reputation in Australia by taking death-defying photographs of various subjects,11 From 1905 to 1910, Hurley was a partner in the photographic postcard company Cave and Company, for which he is known to have photographed, among other subjects, oncoming trains. was entranced by the seemingly endless pictorial possibilities the icebergs afforded. On board the Aurora, Hurley was frequently found perched aloft or ‘dangling from the bowsprit’, and he declared, ‘I found unlimited subjects for my camera – in fact everyone did; shutters clicked on each strange formation, and these were endless’.12 Hurley, p. 42.

In 1913, at the completion of twelve months in Antarctica, Hurley boarded the Aurora for the return voyage to Australia. The departure from Commonwealth Bay was not a time of celebration or relief; rather it was a moment burdened by grief at the news that two members of the expedition had perished on their attempt to reach the far eastern coastline. Douglas Mawson had subsequently returned alone across more than 160 kilometres of Antarctic wilderness, reaching the base camp in a perilous state of health, just as the Aurora was beginning its journey home.

The return journey, through the area of the Southern Ocean below 40° S, took those on board the Aurora through a region where for some hundreds of miles their course lay ‘through a sea covered with myriads of bergs and pieces of broken floe’.13 C. F. Laseron, ‘South with Mawson’, in Antarctic Eyewitness, by C. F. Laseron & F. Hurley, Sydney, 1999, p. 157. In spite of the tragedy that had befallen the group, the remarkable natural phenomena they encountered still served to inspire them to exalting descriptions. Frank Hurley would write of the region as an icy wonderland:

Thousands of mighty bergs were grounded on a vast shoal and our way lay through its midst. No grander sight have I ever witnessed among the wonders of Antarctica. We threaded a way down lanes of vivid blue with shimmering walls of mammoth bergs rising like castles of jade on either side. Countless blue canals branched off and led through what appeared to be avenues of marble skyscrapers – dazzling white in the full sunshine. Waves had weathered out impressive portals and gigantic caverns in their gleaming sides, azure at the entrance and gradually fading into rich cobalt in their remote depths. Festoons of icicles sparkling like crystal pendants, draped ledges and arches.14 Hurley, p. 103.

 

Among Hurley’s photographs taken on the Aurora in 1913 is A turreted berg, a striking study of a lofty iceberg. The photograph shows an iceberg that has been transformed by the elements into a floating pyramid of ice. In his writings, Hurley repeatedly refers to the intensity and purity of colour of the icebergs. In A turreted berg he has not employed the newly invented colour processes, but has made selective use of toning chemicals to alter the colour of the carbon photograph.15 For an explanation of the carbon process, see Newton, p. 206. In this case the normally neutral tonal range of this kind of photograph has been shifted to an intense shade of blue, this colour reflecting more naturalistically the actual tones of the subject.

It is interesting to note the sky in Hurley’s photograph. The clouds fan out almost symmetrically from behind the iceberg, whose remarkable silhouette is softly backlit. However, what seems to be a most fortuitous conjunction of natural phenomena is, in fact, a manipulated effect. Close examination of the photograph reveals an artificially crisp contour line around the iceberg – evidence that suggests Hurley manipulated the image in his darkroom, using the technique of masking, and combining negatives, to create a composite photograph. Hurley was well known for such practices in his work.16 ibid., p. 99. Subsequently, the practice of combining negatives to create a photograph that ‘more accurately’ represented a scene entered the debate surrounding the veracity of photography as a documentary medium. But in 1913 this question of veracity does not appear to have been an issue, at least for Douglas Mawson, for whom Hurley was ‘indisputably a superb photographer, and a very competent technician in the way he superimposed different photographs for effect’.17 Douglas Mawson, cited in Ayres, p. 104. Upon his return to Australia, Mawson published his account of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in The home of the blizzard. A number of Hurley’s photographs were chosen to illustrate this two-volume treatise – among them A turreted berg.

For most of his life, Frank Hurley sought out, and documented, journeys of exploration and feats of adventure. He photographed a number of pivotal moments in modern Australian history, ranging from the exploration of the uncharted expanses of Antarctica and the highlands of New Guinea to the devastation of the battlefields of World War I. Photographing in Antarctica presented distinct aesthetic, technical and physical challenges. In describing the difficulties Hurley writes: ‘[T]he awful climate outside the hut seriously hampered my own operations, for photography in the land of the blizzard was fraught with many problems’. 18 Hurley, p. 60.

In these conditions, Hurley’s film became embrittled, and metal components on his cameras froze – leading to frequent painful bouts of frostbite of the hands and fingers. In addition, the extreme light levels from the dazzling snow led to a painful affliction known as snow blindness. Hurley had also to deal with the problem of ‘snow pelting on the face [which] would rapidly cover it with a mask of ice’.19 ibid. For a photograph by Hurley illustrating this phenomenon (The Ice-Encrusted Face of One Member of the Party Returning to the Hut during a Blizzard, c.1911), see Laseron & Hurley,
facing p. 116.
Such difficulties were a daily fact of life in Antarctica but they were far outweighed by the richness of subject matter that this frozen wilderness revealed to Hurley. In the spirit of adventure that underpins the ethos of the closing days of the era of exploration, Hurley summed up quite simply his experience of Antarctica with Mawson: ‘We had been exploring’, he writes, and had shaken hands with adventure in an unknown land’.20 Hurley, p. 38.

Susan van Wyk, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).

Notes

1     Hurley returned to the Antarctic in 1915, as a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Imperial Transatlantic Expedition, and then again in 1929, as part of Douglas Mawson’s British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE).

2     The photograph was purchased at the Christie’s, London, auction of artefacts of ‘Exploration and Travel’, 17 September 1999 (lot 276). It is interesting to note that in recent years there has been a great deal of material published on early Antarctic exploration and that this sale attracted significant attention.

3     See F. Jacka and E. Jacka (eds), Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries, Sydney, 1988.

4     The work of Frank Hurley, like that of his English counterpart Herbert Ponting (1871–1935), would indeed capture the imagination of the public and would become both an important source of revenue and, in turn, a stimulus to further exploration (see G. Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Canberra, 1988, p. 97). Herbert Ponting was the first official photographer appointed to an Antarctic expedition, accompanying the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910–13. He joined Captain Scott on his ill-fated attempt to be the first person to reach the South Pole.

5     F. Hurley, Argonauts of the South, London, 1925, p. 12.

6     Douglas Mawson, telegram to Frank Hurley, cited in Hurley, p. 13.

7     The largest iceberg ever documented was that sighted on 1 November 1956, and was calculated to measure approximately 208 by 60 miles (335 by 97 kilometres) (see J. Stewart, Antarctica: An Encylopedia, vol. 1, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990, p. 486).

8     Hurley, p. 103.

9     J.-S. C. Dumont d’Urville, cited in P. S. Hosley, Antarctica: Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, London, 1992, p. 118. Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, London, 1992, p. 118.

10     Alec L. Kennedy, diary, 29 January 1911, cited in P. Ayres, Mawson: A Life, Melbourne, 1999, p. 61.

11     From 1905 to 1910, Hurley was a partner in the photographic postcard company Cave and Company, for which he is known to have photographed, among other subjects, oncoming trains.

12     Hurley, p. 42.

13     C. F. Laseron, ‘South with Mawson’, in Antarctic Eyewitness, by C. F. Laseron & F. Hurley, Sydney, 1999, p. 157.

14     Hurley, p. 103.

15     For an explanation of the carbon process, see Newton, p. 206.

16     ibid., p. 99.

17     Douglas Mawson, cited in Ayres, p. 104.

18     Hurley, p. 60

19     ibid. For a photograph by Hurley illustrating this phenomenon (The Ice-Encrusted Face of One Member of the Party Returning to the Hut during a Blizzard, c.1911), see Laseron & Hurley, facing p. 116.

20     Hurley, p. 38.