"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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.