fig. 4
Frank Hurley

By the time Australian Frank Hurley arrived on the Western Front to assume ‘the grim duties of France’ in 1917,1 Frank Hurley, ‘My diary, official war photographer, Commonwealth Military Forces, from 21 August 1917 to 31 August 1918’, in Papers of Frank Hurley, Manuscripts Collection, MS 833, National Library of Australia, Canberra. he had a well-established reputation as a photographer, adventurer and raconteur. His photographs and films along with his thrillingly described exploits in Antarctica on expeditions with Sir Douglas Mawson (1911–13) and Sir Ernest Shackleton (1914–16) had captured the public imagination. Hurley’s skills as a photographer, his controversial and occasionally shocking imagery and his ability to put on a ‘good show’ continued to ensure that his work was seen by mass audiences in London, Sydney and Melbourne in the years immediately following the First World War. A popular success with the general public, the Exhibition of Enlargements Official War Photographs opened in Melbourne in 1921 and offered audiences the opportunity to purchase his photographs and those of other official war photographers. Copies of four photographs by Hurley believed to be from this exhibition were presented to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003.2 It is believed that the four NGV photographs may have come from this exhibition because the images’ sizes match the smallest print size offered for sale in the 1921 exhibition.

The outbreak of war in Europe coincided with the departure of Shackleton and his crew, including Hurley, on the Imperial Trans-Antarctica expedition. For the crew of the Endurance – largely comprising men from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand – the knowledge of the war in Europe must have weighed heavily. The Shackleton expedition met with disaster before it reached Antarctica. From January 1915 until August 1916 the party was stranded and had no news of the outside world. Aware of the outbreak of war, the shipwrecked crew often speculated on the outcome of the conflict, unaware that it was far from over. In July 1916 Hurley’s crewmate Thomas Orde Lee wrote in his diary: ‘I think we are all a little ashamed of having run away from it. Most though, think it must be over by now’.3 Thomas Orde Lee (diary entry, 19 July 1916), quoted in Alisdair McGregor, Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, Viking, Melbourne, 2004, p. 136. At the time of their rescue, all were shocked to learn that, after two years, the war was not over but, in fact, had escalated. The impact of this news was described by Shackleton who wrote that, upon being rescued, they felt ‘like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad’.4 Ernest Shackleton, South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917, Konecky & Konecky, New York, 1998, p. 231.

Within ten weeks of his rescue, Hurley travelled to London. In August 1917 he was appointed an official photographer and cinematographer with the Australian War Records Section (AWRS). Formed in May of that year, the AWRS, under the direction of Charles Bean, was charged to collect Australian war relics and records, including photographs. Photo-historian Shaune Lakin notes that, for Bean, ‘the photograph formed part of a broader national archive comprising written accounts, relics, and other pictorial records that together would tell the story and commemorate the history of Australians at war’.5 Shaune Lakin, Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2006, p. xi. In this capacity Hurley was quickly deployed to Europe, arriving in France on 21 August 1917. He was under the direction of Bean, with whom he had a difficult relationship on occasions; the two are reputed to have disagreed about the role of photography. A notable point of conflict between them was Hurley’s commitment to using multiple negatives to create some of his photographs of battlefield scenes. For Hurley, singular photographs often failed to convey the scale, drama and activity of battle, and he described such images as looking more like a ‘rehearsal in a paddock’.6 Frank Hurley, ‘War photography’, Australasian Photo-Review, 15 February 1919, p. 164, quoted in Helen Ennis, Man with a Camera: Frank Hurley Overseas, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 3. In contrast, Bean’s view was that photographs needed to be an unmanipulated documentary record of the events in which Australian forces were engaged. But despite their differences, Bean clearly had respect for Hurley’s commitment to obtaining the images he wanted, and wrote: ‘[Hurley] is a splendid, capable photo-grapher. I was worrying that he might miss the best pictures but he always got there, without fuss’.7 Charles Bean (diary entry, vol. 132), quoted in David Millar, Snowdrift to Shellfire: Captain James Francis Hurley 1885–1962, David Ell, Sydney, 1984, p. 61.

After the sublime wilderness of Antarctica, wartime London presented a bleak picture to Hurley, but it was nothing compared to the horrors of the Western Front. His diaries convey the destruction he encountered. On his first day in Flanders, Hurley wrote: ‘What an awful scene of desolation! Everything has been swept away, – only stumps of trees stick up here or there and the whole field has the appearance of having been recently ploughed’.8 Hurley (diary entry, 23 August 1917). His photographs convey even more vividly the visceral horror of the battlefield.

One of Hurley’s best-known works from the First World War is his photograph Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track, 1917 (fig. 1). It is an image that combines a sense of the heroic and the dreadful, showing Australian troops marching into battle through the shattered landscape. On the same day that he took this photograph Hurley wrote:

The way was gruesome and awful beyond words. The ground had been recently heavily shelled by the Boche and the dead and wounded lay about everywhere … Last night’s shower too, made it a quagmire, and through this the wounded had to drag themselves, and those mortally wounded pass out their young lives.9 ibid. (20 September 1917).

Fought in dreadful conditions, the First World War saw the introduction of a range of new war machines. One of the photographs in the NGV group, for example, shows a disabled tank in the mud (fig. 2). A product of the mechanical age, tanks, or ‘land ships’ as they were also known, were first seen in the 1914–18 war, although their deadly effect was clearly defeated by the mud of Flanders. Hurley wrote at length in his diaries about fighting and living conditions in and around the battlefields, and in this image he gives a clear sense of the impassable nature of the broken and saturated ground.

To facilitate movement to and from the front across this hazardous terrain, troops spent hours laying duckboard tracks. The laborious nature of this task is shown in Hurley’s photograph Pioneers of the 1st Australian Division preparing a duckboard track, 1919 (fig. 3). In this image Hurley shows a stream of men moving across the landscape, diminutive figures stretching from one side of the photograph to the other. The men heading out are weighed down with sections of the timber walkways that were laid on the mud to enable safer passage across the treacherous ground. The returning soldiers appear to march resolutely back to collect the next section of duckboard.

In his photograph of the wounded on the Menin Road (fig. 4), Hurley shows a seemingly endless line of injured and dead lying on the side of a muddy road in a decimated landscape. A lone figure appears to be providing aid while a stream of stretcher-bearers, soldiers and German prisoners passes by. Hurley’s photograph conveys the scale of the landscape and the terrible human toll. The awfulness of the scene is confirmed in his diary entry from that day: ‘The Menin Road is a won-drous sight: with stretcher bearers packed on either side awaiting transport and the centre crowded with walking wounded and prisoners’. He also commented:

A large number of casualties were coming in when we left … Those that came in and were not overly seriously wounded expressed their pleasure of having escaped the horror of another battle, and it is patent that all will thoroughly loathe this frightful prolongation of massacre.10 ibid.

Hurley’s commitment to capturing an image, to ‘getting there without a fuss’, as Bean described it, underplays the many difficulties he faced in the field. His daily encounters with death, destruction and the ubiquitous mud of Flanders can only have hampered his photography. Hurley was – perhaps unknowingly – echoing Bean’s impetus to establish a national collection and, in turn, a memorial to Australians at war when he wrote:

My enthusiasm and keenness, however, to record the hideous things men have to endure urges me on. No monetary considerations, or very few others in fact, would induce any man to flounder in mud to his knees to try and take pictures.11 Frank Hurley, quoted in Daniel O’Keefe, Hurley at War: The Photography and Diaries of Frank Hurley in Two World Wars, Fairfax Library, Sydney, 1986, p. 7.

News of the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918 was celebrated in towns and cities across Australia and around the world. The initial jubilation was no doubt mediated with sadness and a sense of loss, and with the harsh reality of wounded and battle-wearied men reintegrating into civilian life. During and immediately following the war, displays of photographs and other examples of war art were mounted in London and Australia. As early as May 1918, the exhibition Australian Official War Photographs and Pictures was presented at the Grafton Galleries in London and included a number of photographs by Hurley.12 For a detailed discussion of the Grafton Galleries exhibition and Hurley’s use of composite negatives, see Martyn Jolly, ‘Australian First World War photography: Frank Hurley and Charles Bean’, History of Photography, no. 23, Summer 1999, pp. 141–8; and Martyn Jolly, ‘Composite propaganda photographs during the First World War’, History of Photography, no. 27, Summer 2003, pp. 154–65. The following year Hurley arranged the display of his works in a charity show for the Red Cross at the Kodak Salon in Sydney. Two years later, in August 1921, the Exhibition of Enlargements Official War Photographs arranged by the Australian War Museum was presented at the Royal Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne.

Under the direction of Bean, the AWRS had collected 11,243 negatives showing the activities of Australian forces across Europe and the Middle East.13 This figure was supplied by Shaune Lakin in correspondence with the author. This collection arrived in Melbourne in 1919 where it was used to print the photographs that comprised the 1921 exhibition. There is no evidence to suggest that the works included were printed by the photographers who took the pictures; on the contrary, it would seem more likely that they were printed by AWRS darkroom assistants or by one of the many commercial photographic studios operating in Melbourne at that time.14 Shaune Lakin advised the author that the Australian War Museum outsourced the production of these pictures to commercial printers. The exhibition was supported by the chairman of trustees for the Royal Exhibition Buildings, Sir Henry Weedon, who, among other business interests, was a partner in the commercially successful Talma Photographic Studios in Melbourne. Weedon had worked actively in the closing years of the war to secure the Royal Exhibition Buildings as the inaugural home for the proposed Australian War Museum. The successful reception of the 1921 exhibition would no doubt have reinforced his bid to see Melbourne established as the first venue to host the War Museum collections.

Comprising two hundred and sixty-one photographs taken by a number of different photographers in Europe and the Middle East, the exhibition drew a crowd of more than eighty thousand people in the five weeks that it was open in Melbourne. The photographs were accompanied by a catalogue that included extended titles.15 Versions of the four photographs in the NGV collection were also included in the 1919 Kodak Salon exhibition in Sydney; however, the captions vary from those published in the 1921 catalogue and on the Australian War Memorial website. The photographs now in the NGV collection were captioned with low-key descriptions in the catalogue, for example: ‘Duckboard Fatigue’ Pioneers of the 1st Australian Division preparing a duck-board track over the muddy waste near Zonnebeke, in the Ypres sector, Belgium, October 5th, 1917, the day after the Australians attacked Broodseinde Ridge. Owing to the heavy rains and marshy nature of the ground, duck-boards were the only means of crossing this area (fig. 3). These titles, which were not written by the photographers themselves but by caption writers in the military, generally included little emotive language, resorting instead to factual descriptions of the sometimes horrific scenes. Somewhat at odds with their titles and captions, Hurley’s photographs must have evoked emotional responses from the viewers because they show scenes of death and destruction. Hurley’s personal response to these scenes not only informed his picture-making but is also recorded in his diaries, which combine accounts of where he was and what he was doing with powerful, sometimes emotional, written descriptions of what he had witnessed.16 See, for example, Hurley, diary entry, 20 September 1917.

Photographs of war are darkly fascinating. The terrible attraction of Hurley’s photographs and of the other official photographers included in the Melbourne exhibition was duly noted in a review in the Age newspaper which stated there was ‘no drawing-room politeness about these pictures’, and further noted: ‘[The photo-graphs] do not show the happy, smiling faces of men on a delectable adventure. With a few exceptions, the faces of those at close grips with death are grim and set’.17 Age, 20 August 1921, quoted in David Dunstan, Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Buildings, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1996, p. 331.

The photographs, works of art, documents and relics that were assiduously collected by the AWRS enabled Australians at home to see firsthand aspects of the face of war. On one level, the photographs were documents that recorded the activities and experiences of the AIF, ensuring that there was a visual history of Australian activities during the First World War. On another, they served as more personal reminders of place and experience. They were in effect functioning as both public and private memorials. The exhibition catalogue listed the photographs for sale, saying: ‘They make Ideal Presents to ex-soldiers’.18 Descriptive Catalogue of Official War Photographs, Australian War Museum, Melbourne, 1921, p. 1. The catalogue further suggested on the header of each page: ‘What could be more appropriate on the walls of a home from which a soldier enlisted than copies of the Enlargements now on show?’ Such photographs were printed in large numbers and intended for mass consumption, and copies of works in the exhibition could be purchased by visitors as mementoes of their own or their loved ones’ experiences.

Although similar in content to the London exhibition mounted three years earlier, the 1921 Melbourne show was distinguished by the fact that it was an account of the war presented to Australian audiences. For Melbourne visitors, already very familiar with photographs of the war reproduced in the daily newspapers, this exhibition must have had a particular resonance because it provided an opportunity to see more than two hundred images gathered together of the places and events that had irrevocably changed the lives of so many people. Ypres, Passchendaele and the Menin Road were places that had entered the national consciousness, and photographs from this exhibition, such as these four by Frank Hurley, were among the earliest images of the First World War to be acquired by local audiences.

Susan van Wyk, Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).

Notes

1     Frank Hurley, ‘My diary, official war photographer, Commonwealth Military Forces, from 21 August 1917 to 31 August 1918’, in Papers of Frank Hurley, Manuscripts Collection, MS 833, National Library of Australia, Canberra.

2     It is believed that the four NGV photographs may have come from this exhibition because the images’ sizes match the smallest print size offered for sale in the 1921 exhibition.

3     Thomas Orde Lee (diary entry, 19 July 1916), quoted in Alisdair McGregor, Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, Viking, Melbourne, 2004, p. 136.

4     Ernest Shackleton, South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917, Konecky & Konecky, New York, 1998, p. 231.

5     Shaune Lakin, Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2006, p. xi.

6     Frank Hurley, ‘War photography’, Australasian Photo-Review, 15 February 1919, p. 164, quoted in Helen Ennis, Man with a Camera: Frank Hurley Overseas, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 3.

7     Charles Bean (diary entry, vol. 132), quoted in David Millar, Snowdrift to Shellfire: Captain James Francis Hurley 1885–1962, David Ell, Sydney, 1984, p. 61.

8     Hurley (diary entry, 23 August 1917).

9     ibid. (20 September 1917).

10     ibid.

11     Frank Hurley, quoted in Daniel O’Keefe, Hurley at War: The Photography and Diaries of Frank Hurley in Two World Wars, Fairfax Library, Sydney, 1986, p. 7.

12     For a detailed discussion of the Grafton Galleries exhibition and Hurley’s use of composite negatives, see Martyn Jolly, ‘Australian First World War photography: Frank Hurley and Charles Bean’, History of Photography, no. 23, Summer 1999, pp. 141–8;  and Martyn Jolly, ‘Composite propaganda photographs during the First World War’, History of Photography, no. 27, Summer 2003, pp. 154–65.

13     This figure was supplied by Shaune Lakin in correspondence with the author.

14     Shaune Lakin advised the author that the Australian War Museum outsourced the production of these pictures to commercial printers.

15     Versions of the four photographs in the NGV collection were also included in the 1919 Kodak Salon exhibition in Sydney; however, the captions vary from those published in the 1921 catalogue and on the Australian War Memorial website.

16     See, for example, Hurley, diary entry, 20 September 1917.

17     Age, 20 August 1921, quoted in David Dunstan, Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Buildings, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1996, p. 331.

18     Descriptive Catalogue of Official War Photographs, Australian War Museum, Melbourne, 1921, p. 1.