Frank Hurley With Ernest Shackleton: Photographing Antarctic Adventure

Frank Hurley With Ernest Shackleton: Photographing Antarctic Adventure

"Men Wanted For Hazardous Journey: Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success." Do you think you’d answer this ad if it popped up on Indeed or Monster? 

The next time anyone wants to complain about lugging camera gear, inhospitable locations, or demanding clients, perhaps they should turn their minds to Frank Hurley’s dedication to photography and the camera gear he needed to take his place in history.

Frank Hurley and Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton’s Story (in Brief)

Before we move on to Hurley, I want to make sure that everyone is familiar with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story. If not, briefly, Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, colloquially called the Endurance Expedition, was designed to cross Antarctica by land. His ship, Endurance, was stuck in ice for almost a year before the crew abandoned ship to the crushing pressure of the ice pack. 

Map showing scope of the Endurance Expedition

Saving three open lifeboats from the wreck, Shackleton and his men finally made it to land on Elephant Island. Because Elephant Island was so far from any shipping routes, it was unlikely that the men would be rescued. Deciding to rescue themselves, Shackleton left most of his men on Elephant Island and set sail with his most trusted companions for South Georgia, 810 miles away. The oceans in this part of the world can often reach 60-foot swells. If I wasn’t clear, they sailed this in an open 23-foot boat! Making landfall almost three weeks later, they then scampered over the mountains of South Georgia to reach a whaling station. Shackleton finally made his way back to Elephant Island to rescue his men. Nobody died. Nobody! To read more, check out one of the best books on the Endurance Expedition.

I find that fellow explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s often-quoted missive describes Shackleton in the quickest and most illuminating way:

For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

Hurley’s Role

This story alone is one for the ages. What makes it even richer for those of us with an interest in photography is the role played by Hurley. Through all of this, Hurley used turn of the century photography equipment to capture history. Without Hurley’s images, Shackleton and the Endurance story may not have become as much a part of public consciousness as it was destined to become. Because of Hurley’s images, the story never became some unimaginable yarn. The fact that images of the expedition were printed and shared gave the story a feel of modernity that solidified its staying power for generations to come.  

Hurley’s Equipment

An example of Hurley's Goerz-Anschutz (expired auction photograph, no attribution)

Hurley was initially hired to take scientific and research photos for the expedition. To be prepared to capture as much of the expedition as possible, Hurley assembled an immense collection of equipment. The Lone Hand, an Australian magazine, bragged that 

Hurley is taking the best photographic equipment that has ever been sent out on an expedition.

Hurley with his Prestwich Cine

Able to choose from almost anything available, Hurley brought a Goerz-Anschutz plate camera, a Kodak Panorama Box Camera, several Folmer & Schwing Graflex single lens reflex cameras (equivalent in size and weight to bulky medium format cameras), several Kodak Folding Pocket (FPK) No. 3A cameras, a Prestwich No. 5 cinema camera, and the brand new Kodak Vest Pocket Camera. 

An example of Hurley's SLRs (expired auction photograph, no attribution)

Photographing the Initial Stages of the Endurance Expedition

The earliest photos taken by Hurley as part of the Endurance crew show that he had no qualms about carrying his view camera up the rugged mountains of South Georgia to get a shot. 

Hurley on top of the mountains on South Georgia.

If fancy struck him, he’d even hoist and carry his view camera up the masts of Endurance for a bird’s eye view of the ship and its surrounds. The information I could find indicated that the Goerz-Anschutz and the Cine camera each weighed 40 lbs all kitted out.

Hurley in the rigging of Endurance, above Shackleton

Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of Endurance, diarized that Hurley was 

 ...a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.

Hurley in the rigging

Similarly, Col. Alexander Macklin journaled that Hurley would 

...[fix] his machine on the extreme end of the top-gallant yard to get panoramic views of the pack.

Hurley's panorama from the rigging

Hurley's panorama from the rigging

Photographing the Wreck of Endurance

As it turned out, Hurley needed to be a warrior with his camera. When things eventually went sideways, Hurley didn’t stop takeing photos. While Endurance drifted in pack ice on the Weddell Sea, Hurley recorded the daily lives of the trapped men and the eventual destruction of Endurance itself. 

His images show the grit and determination of the crew as they lived at the mercy of the shifting pack ice.

Hurley's photo of the Endurance crew keeping warm. There is another version of this photo developed by the RGS that shows additional men in the background.

Not only was Hurley a determined photographer, he was a very creative one. Hurley was quoted in an Australasian Photo-Review article from June 1911, explaining his views on photography:

[Photography is] not an exact representation of nature, and a picture is not a record of things in view... regard your camera as an artist does his brush. Think that you hold a piece of apparatus worthy of the same possibilities of the artist... Your camera is but a piece of mechanical apparatus. You are its intellect.

As his ship cracked and food ran short, stranded in the ice pack, Hurley was constantly developing this creative take on the world around him. He even created a darkroom on the ship to develop his Paget color plates.

Hurley's photo of Endurance, Paget colour

Hurley’s journal described the efforts it required to develop plates in Antarctica:

Darkroom work rendered extremely difficult by the low temperatures it being minus 13 °C outside. The temperature in the darkroom, near the engine room, is just above freezing. Washing [plates] is troublesome, as the tank must be kept warm or the plates become an [enclosed] in an ice block... Development is a source of annoyance to the fingers, which split and crack around the nails in a painful manner.

Hurley's photo of Endurance in the ice pack, Paget colour

My favorite story is Hurley taking the time to light paint Endurance during the Antarctic darkness. Again, directly from Hurley’s diary:

[Friday August 27, 1915] During the night take flashlight of the ship beset by pressure, necessitating some 20 flashes, one behind each salient pressure hummock, no less than 10 flashes being required to satisfactorily illuminate the ship herself. Half-blinded after successive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst the hummocks, bumping shins against projecting ice points and stumbling into deep snow drifts, etc.... The negative when developed proved satisfactory and well repaid the cold endeavour.

Hurley light painting of Endurance

Can you imagine, as low as -50 °C, in pitch black, using magnesium bulbs to slowly and painstakingly paint your last refuge as it was slowly crushed by the ice pack?

My camera is a bug bear, and using it is a nightmare. Every time I have to set the shutter, I have to take a number of tiny screws from the front and bend the mechanism into shape. 

Hurley filming Endurance

Moving on From Endurance

When Endurance finally began to slowly sink, Hurley realized he had not saved all of his exposed plates. Working with the crew, Hurley himself repeatedly dove into the wreck to reach his storage room, below the surface of the grease ice. If anyone has taken a Polar Bear Dip, can you imagine doing it again and again, with no sauna waiting for you? To be honest, I’m sure he had a few drams of scotch to keep him warm. 

When it became clear that the expedition would have to move on from the sinking ship, Shackleton and Hurley sat together on the ice to choose what plates and film to take and what to leave behind. Heartbreakingly, the two smashed the plates they decided to leave behind so that there would be no second thoughts. In the end, they saved only 120 plates, with the location of 30+ plates still a mystery. 

Hurley's photo of the struggle to cross the ice after the breakup of Endurance

The two decided to keep most of the film negatives and the cine film. This proved to be an excellent decision, as the National Geographic Society showed the film that was finally edited together. The films and photo displays actually helped to turn a profit for the Endurance Expedition.

Leaving behind most of his equipment, Hurley carried a Kodak Vest Pocket camera and three rolls of film for the rest of the ordeal. He never stopped taking photos. Hurley took a further 38 images of the men stranded on Elephant Island and images of the eventual rescue.

Hurley's photo of the eventual rescue of Shackleton's men on Elephant Island

Once rescued, Hurley immediately rented out a local darkroom to develop his work for exhibitions. Returning to England, he realized he needed more footage of wildlife and turned heel for South Georgia again. 

The more I dig into this story, the more and more I idolize Hurley’s dedication to his craft. 

Images used fall within the public domain. Map from WikiCommons, no attribution.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

Log in or register to post comments

Thanks so much! Appreciate that.
Have a few coming about "Missing Cameras" in history (think Mallory and Armstrong) as well as "Humble Camera in Extraordinary Moments"

Nice article

Thanks Leigh. Appreciate the positive feed back!

I 'd answer the add................of course I'd have to lose 40lbs, as well as 50 years...........:(

I'd be in in a heartbeat. OUR extra weight could certainly help over those cold nights!

Your not implying that we should snuggle are you??

Ha Ha Ha. I wasn’t, but maybe I should have been! I was think more about insulation. But, to keep hypothermia at bay . . .

I was, of course, being silly. I spent 2 1/2 years in Alaska and as I'm sure your aware of the temp's would get well below zero and I mean well below zero(-80)


one of the most interesting posts ever

I’ve always been fascinated by these guys at this point in time, the end of the Heroic Age! Thanks Mike. Happy to share my fascination!

Fascinating story and images! Loved reading that.

Thanks Simon! Hurley is one of my favourite historical photogs. Glad I could write it up for such a great set of readers.

I don't know whether it's sad or not to think that these guys would have had viral photos on Instagram with the same kind of "single person in a landscape" shot that is popular (or still popular) now. We've got it so easy these days.

On the shoulders’ of giants . . . Right!!!

Thanks for posting that. It is critical that photographers today understand the history of the medium With all of the tech talk and gadget gossip that goes on, we often lose the stories of the masters who shaped the craft. Photography did not start with digital. Think about it.... there were no light meters at this point in photography. You actually had to be able to read light and truly understand exposure.

Thanks for taking the time to read through. Having spent a lot of time with older research materials over the years, I’m always surprised by how many ads there are for “new” photographery processes or tools.

I think with the rise of digital, this has become more and more prevalent. I do wonder if it’s digital photography to blame, or, just the way marketing has evolved. Either way, they’re just tools. To quote the old adage, hammers don’t build houses.

As for light meters: What a skill! I can guess and be close at what I need to shoot at before starting, but having never practiced this, I’m nowhere close to as accurate or as consistent as this era.

Reading Light and mentally calculating exposure was a skill that most of the vintage photographers possessed. First, they experimented and used a lot of plates (glass or otherwise) in various light conditions and recorded the results. So, they knew that if it was full sun, slightly cloudy, full clouds, shade as well as morning and evening conditions what exposures to use. In the early days, they just took off the lens cap and counted because there were no moving shutters. Knowing those things would get them close. Then, making a lot of pictures enabled them to fine tune their processes. If you remember the great shot by Ansel Adams, Moonrise Over Hernandez, he couldn't locate his meter. However, he knew the reflectance of the moon which is essentially daylight. So, in that shot he exposed for the moon knowing that he would create a negative that would underexpose the foreground. After developing the negative, he intensified the foreground thereby making it usable. In the old Kodak instructions for meter-less cameras, they discussed the sunny 16 rule and the user could then calculate the other exposures. Being able to calculate exposures was fairly prevalent even for amateurs. Today these forums spend a lot of time debating over the use of histograms and dynamic range of digital sensors when at the end of the day, all of this equipment is far better than what Hurley had. Yet, he made great images.

Moonrise is one of my favourite stories. Adams estimates he only had a minute or two to take the photo. Talk about nailing it!

Absolutely. Today if you took away a light meter or a histogram, most photographers would be hopelessly lost.

I love this

Thanks Clay!

Harrah you are a champion! As an Australian i am so pleased to read an (excellent) FS story about one of my heroes.

And the story continues because Hurley went on to document WW1 and WW2.

Now here's a thing for my FS friends: Hurley was an enthusiast doctor of his images. You see the ongoing debate about Photoshop editing? Hurley got there first, routinely splicing and jigging images. For example he'd add planes where there had been none. He had a large library of sky photos and would paste them over photos that had otherwise dull skies.

I recently went to an exhibition of some of his work, and was thinking he needs a story on Fstoppers. Can we have more please!

Thanks Rod! I'm happy that my article found a fellow enthusiast! Thanks as well for sharing your knowledge. I would have loved to have seen the exhibit!
If you're looking for more, check out:
I wrote about Hurley in my first article for Fstoppers. More to come, promise!

What a fantastic article. Well done!

It's such a GREAT story. Thanks Gerald.

That light painting is amaaaaazing, it's giving me chills

Prior to doing an Antarctic Cruise that followed Shackleton's expedition (in reverse), I read an excellent book about their voyage ("Endurance" by Lansing). What those men went through and survived is astounding. Parts of the description of their suffering were hard to read. The article mentions Shackleton "scampering over the mountains" to get to a whaling station for help In fact, a group of fully equipped and trained Marines attempted the same path as part of a celebration of the event .. and had to be rescued! Shackleton did it with no equipment or even decent shoes. Hurley himself was a hero and was very important in a number of other incidents beyond his role as photographer. Truly an amazing story and an amazing group of men.

I love the Lansing book! It’s the one I mentioned above.
I do love the story of Shackleton being the first over the mountains and how he did it faster than most supported expeditions can do it these days. Incredible.