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Hurley in the Middle East
Lecture with Exhibition Curator, Rosalind Clarke
Talks / Lecture
Lecture with Exhibition Curator, Rosalind Clarke
13 March 2019
The lifelong adventurer and famous photographer Frank Hurley travelled around the Middle East and North Africa from 1941 to 1946. His official mission was to Australian service members during the desert campaign of the Second World War.
This lecture focuses on how Hurley was entranced by the local cultures, architecture and landscape of the middle east and will be delivered by Exhibition Curator, Rosalind Clarke.
Hurley in the Middle East with Rosalind Clarke
*Speakers: Guy Hansen (G), Rosalind Clarke (R)
*Location: National Library of Australia, Theatre
*Date: 13 March, 2019
G: My name is Guy Hansen, I’m the Director of Exhibitions here at the National Library of Australia. Thank you for coming.
As we begin today I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home. I also acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors here with us today.
This afternoon we welcome Rosalind Clarke who’s a curator here at the Library. Rosalind has a background in museum studies, archaeology, English literature and today Rosalind’s going to talk about the lifelong adventurer and famous photographer, Frank Hurley, and his experience in the Middle East from 1941 to 1946.
The reason that we’re doing this talk is ‘cause Ros has just recently put together our Collections in Focus exhibition in the Treasures Gallery which is called Pilgrimage, Hurley in the Middle East so this talk actually allows Ros to expand on some of those ideas that she’s explored in that exhibition. So let me encourage you if you haven’t already to later on today or perhaps another day come back and have a look at the show. But for now please join me in welcoming Ros.
R: Thank you, Guy. Good afternoon, thank you for coming today. Before we begin I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this beautiful land on which we’re meeting and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to say that this talk and the exhibition uses historic place names, not current ones.
So on the occasion of the reissue of Alasdair McGregor’s excellent biography, Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, available again through NLA Publishing and I’ve been told upstairs in the bookshop at a 10% discount for today, it seems like a good time to revisit Frank Hurley through a fresh lens using photographs from the Library’s extensive collection of Hurley material. It has been my absolute privilege to create this show and to be here today, giving you a behind the scenes glimpse into how I put it together.
So Frank Hurley. If you’re familiar with him you’ll know that he did not have an ordinary life by any means. After reading his biography and looking at the vast amount of Hurley material in our collection - the National Library by the way holds over 11,000 of his images, more than any other institution in Australia, I believe. So I was at a bit of a loss about where to focus on, how could I possibly narrow it down? He was an extremely prolific photographer, his body of work dates across nearly his whole life from very early photographs of Sydney to sweeping pastoral vistas from his tour of Australia in his 70s as well as many other places besides. His photographs from Antarctica are particularly beloved with a very good reason.
Now I couldn’t say that I looked at all 11,000 but I did look at a lot and to be honest with you most people associate him with his earlier work from Antarctica and the first world war but never one to shy away from being contrary I decided instead to explore a different part of his work that’s been frequently overlooked in the past.
As you may have cleverly deduced from the title of the exhibition, Pilgrimage: Hurley in the Middle East displays photographs taken from Hurley’s tours of the Middle East during and immediately after the second world war. This was a place that Hurley described as the most fascinating and wondrous area of our globe and his work from this captures the remarkable landscape and cultures of the area.
Now his work during the 1940s has tended to be passed over by institutions and scholars, some people have even argued that he was sort of outdated by this time, that he was grumpy, inflexible, slow, that he was past his best before date essentially. Personally I think his later work is still – is worth a fresh look, not only because the photos are actually extraordinary in their own right, in fact they sometimes took my breath away, but also because they document some particularly interesting events unfolding in the Middle East at that time.
But first a bit of background for those not already familiar with him. Frank Hurley, later Captain Frank Hurley as he quite liked to be called, lived from 1885 to 1962 and he was one of Australia’s most successful and well-known photographers of the 20th century. I hope that some of you are already acquainted with him, he truly had one of the most remarkable lives of any Australian in the 20th century. In fact his life sometimes reads like some sort of adventure novel, maybe by H Rider Haggard, full of expeditions to far off places, swashbuckling adventures and the might of the British Empire. This was the man who journeyed to Antarctica six times, travelled all over the globe, flew with heroes of early aviation, witnessed two world wars and photographed kings, queens and presidents.
His main passion, apart from all this adventuring and travel, was a love of photography. He became enamoured with it as a young man at a time when technological advancements made it much cheaper and easier to use. The Kodak – the handheld Kodak camera came out in 1888 and this transformed photography from what was a profession into a hobby, something that anyone could pick up, something that anyone could use.
Hurley was a wayward, restless 17-year-old working a variety of jobs in and around Sydney when in his own words, I found a new toy. A fellow worker, he writes, induced me to purchase this camera and take up the study of photography. Soon I became so absorbed in this new fad, as my friends called it, that everything else fell into neglect. From the time I first gazed wonderingly at the miracle of chemical reaction on the latent image during the process of development I knew that I had found my real work and a key, could I become its master that would perhaps unlock the portals of the undiscovered world?
I think this quote is actually quite indicative of Hurley’s work as an artist. Fascination with the technological process, absorption to the point of neglect of any other consideration and the way that photography could perhaps lead on to adventure and exploration.
So he soon set to work, particularly in Sydney’s burgeoning postcard industry, taking these views of places like the zigzag railway in Lithgow or the Macquarie Lighthouse. He also very quickly establishes himself as a risktaker, someone who would go to great lengths and undertake great personal risk to capture unusual photographs. He only very narrowly escaped being hit by this train as he was taking this photograph.
So this eventually brought him – brings him to the attention of geologist and Antarctic explorer, Douglas Mawson, who was leader of the Australasian Antarctic expedition and Hurley was able to join as expedition photographer. In 1912 he was part of a group that sledged within 50 miles of the south magnetic pole. This was a record-breaking trip at the time.
He also accompanied Ernest Shackleton in the ill-fated Imperial Transantarctic expedition where the ship, Endurance, was lost among the sea ice and the crew were stranded in the Antarctic. So some of Hurley’s most famous works, which many of you are probably very familiar with, are from this time. His dairies provide an excellent account of his expeditions, particularly of the struggle for life during the Endurance time. They’re really just a stellar read, you get a very real sense of how desperate they were and how close they came to not making it back.
But they did make it back and once they’d been rescued they found to their surprise that the first world war was still raging. Out of the frying pan into the fire and Hurley unsurprisingly immediately puts himself forward. In 1917 he joined the AIF as official photographer at the rank of Captain. While he was on the western front he witnessed and photographed some true horrors and his work from this time is also very iconic and this image was used a lot in the recent commemoration of the war.
He did also have to endure some substandard OH and S conditions and this is when his risk-taking again comes to the fore. Now I have to make a brief disclaimer that in my line of work it’s rare to get anything more dangerous than a papercut but I did once have a mishap with a pencil that entailed a rush to the doctor to remove a lead that was stuck under my fingernail so it is with not a small amount of awe that I look at what Hurley did to take a photograph.
Consider this instance from his diaries, and by the way this is referring to another photographer, Hubert Wilkins, who’s also a very interesting person in his own right. So he writes, yesterday we damn near succeeded in having an end made to ourselves. In spite of heavy shelling by the Boche we made an endeavour to secure a number of shell burst pictures. Many of the shells broke only a few score paces away. I took pictures by hiding in a dugout and then rushing out and snapping then a terrific, angry, rocketlike shriek warned us to duck. This we did by throwing ourselves flat in a shell hole half filled with mud, a fortunate precaution for immediately a terrific roar made us squeeze ourselves into as little bulk as possible and up went timber, stone, shells and everything else in the vicinity. A dump of 4.5 shells had received a direct hit and the splinters rained on our helmets and the debris and mud came down in a cloud. The frightful concussion absolutely winded us but we escaped injury and made off through the mud and water as fast as we possibly could.
So his work at the front was not universally appreciated. In particular he clashed with the official historian, Charles Bean over his practice over creating composite prints and this is an example. Composites are when two or more images are joined together to make one sometimes by simply cutting and pasting or by printing more than one negative onto the same sheet. Artists have been doing this since the 1880s.
Hurley’s photographic motto, if he had one, would probably be summed up in the idiom that one shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Influenced by the pictorialism movement Hurley believed that photography was an art form, not a science and he would manipulate images during production instead of treating them as a documentary recording of life. So this image is a particularly famous example of this practice and you can see – you can probably guess that some of the planes have been added in from different negatives, some of the explosions have been added in and that it all looks a bit perhaps overwrought. Charles Bean thought that this practice was very dishonest but Hurley’s rationale was that it was impossible to actually capture everything that was going on at the same time without using this kind of technique and he completely refused to change.
So he was eventually sent to follow the AIF in Palestine and Egypt where he witnessed the capture of Jerusalem and Jericho but more importantly I think in terms of Hurley’s life story at least his time there was very pleasant. It was warm, sunny, calm, relatively less dangerous. He wrote in his diary that France is hell, Palestine more or less a holiday. At times in his diary he almost seems overwhelmed with the beauty and richness of the area. In leaving the Middle East in 1918 he wrote, oh Palestine, Garden of Eden, home of bounteous nature, may I live to come back to you again for thou art indeed a dreamland of beauty and happiness.
Incidentally, and in this case sometimes I wonder if his marriage was incidental to his life, this was where he met and married a woman called Antoinette Leighton. She was an opera singer. After the war Antoinette and Frank moved back to Sydney and they arrived just after the armistice and they would eventually have four children.
So while you might expect Hurley to settle down into life as a husband or father after the war you’d be very sadly mistaken. During the ‘20s and ‘30s he went to Antarctica again, got involved with Australia’s germinating film industry and took several flying expeditions with famous aviators like Ross Smith. He also travelled to New Guinea on various what he called scientific and documentary expeditions to explore places like the Fly River and other remote areas. During this time he collected cultural artefacts using very irregular methods and was accused by the colonial authorities of using bullying or trickery to acquire them. So this is quite a controversial time in his life.
This brings us up to the outbreak of the second world war and as you can probably predict Hurley instantly volunteers himself for the job of official photographer again. He was now in his 50s and he had to do some convincing to be accepted to the post. Eventually he was sent with a team of younger men to make up the Department of Information’s Photographic Unit in the Middle East and these guys were Ron Maslyn Williams, Damien Parer, George Silk and Alan Anderson, themselves quite well-known photographers in their own right.
Because of the delay, when he finally arrives via seaplane on the Sea of Galilee the war’s already a year old and it’s a very different sort of war from the last time. The Middle East has changed for a start but the nature of the desert campaign proved very difficult to cover. The vast distances, the quick-moving front, big clouds of dust that would billow up. It was all very different from the slow muddy war of attrition of Flanders. Despite these challenges Hurley was on the scene during both the siege of Tobruk and the battle of El Alamein and these are very significant conflicts during the second world war for Australians as I’m sure you know.
So Hurley was undoubtably the most experienced member of the unit but he was also again – almost unanimously criticised by both superiors and peers. His style, technique, perfectionism and love of composites were some of the main areas of contention. For example he continued to use a heavy tripod which made him very slow and much less mobile than his team members who were using handhelds and they loved to get quite close to the action.
One example of the kind of difference between Hurley and his colleagues is a – anecdote from the siege of Tobruk. Hurley and his colleague, Alan Anderson, and some soldiers were caught rather unexpectedly on a beach by German dive bombers and during the attack they all ran for cover. Hurley and Anderson end up in different cover holes and they’ve each got their camera on them. It became apparent that they weren’t in immediate danger and it was a perfect opportunity for a photograph, particularly as the planes were flying so close to the ground. Someone recalled that – or someone said that the planes were so close you could have reached up and shook hands with the pilots. Unfortunately at this critical juncture Anderson’s camera breaks and afterwards he collars Hurley to ask how he went, surely Hurley would have taken this opportunity to get some good action shots. Hurley replies, don’t be silly, Alan, you know very well that bloody camera scratches so he was worried that the dust would scratch the film.
I think it is again indicative of Hurley’s attitude throughout his life towards his craft and towards maintaining perfection. His biographer, Alasdair McGregor, discovered in Hurley’s dark room in Antarctica left over from his first ever trip there that he’s written, near enough is not good enough, on the wall. He would consistently destroy any negatives that he didn’t think were up to scratch. In the Antarctic he would smash them to pieces on the ice and in the Middle East he would have them flown out to the middle of the desert and burnt and negatives burn very well, by the way.
Another point of contention between Hurley and has colleagues was what you might term Hurley’s wandering eye. Interspersed with filming the battles, campaigns and armies that he was meant to be reporting he shot scenic photographs of landscapes and architecture and the local peoples. Damien Parer wrote in a letter to his friends, Max Dupain and Olive Cotton that Hurley hasn’t got much new sense which is necessary to the job. He goes mad about bloody native boats and mosques and clouds, cumulus variety only. While the war correspondents lick us at the new stuff he goes in for big rugged scenery and worries about quality.
He was also criticised by his boss, Ken Hall, in a report to the Department of Information that Hurley wasn’t producing enough war material. He complained that Hurley was doing too much sidelights of the life of the Arabs and the scenic beauties of Syria and Palestine. In one instance Hurley nicked off for the afternoon between photographing the visiting Prime Minister Robert Menzies to instead go take photos of Italian architecture in Benghazi. He increasingly took one photo for the government and several photos for himself.
One other bone of contention between Hurley and his team was that – was one of age, he was old enough to be everyone’s father, basically. They were all, Damien Parer in particular, willing to take risks, maybe even to the point of recklessness. Parer believed that only by getting right up between the opposing sides could he truly capture all the raw emotion of war and this is quite reminiscent of how Hurley was himself when he was younger, particularly during the first world war.
Eventually this rather uneasy state of affairs changes, Pearl Harbour is bombed, the war shifts away from the Middle East to the Pacific and this meant the breaking up of the photographic unit as the younger photographers are sent to cover the war in the Pacific, leaving Hurley at a bit of a loose end. Parer in particular distinguished himself in the Pacific and his work remains I think integral to our understanding of the war in that area. His desire to be close to the action was completely unabated and it led to widespread fame when he filmed Australia’s withdrawal along the Kokoda Track. You may have seen the Academy Award-winning newsreel, Kokoda Front Line!, and this is Parer’s work. But his attitude was incredibly dangerous and in September 1944 he was cut down by Japanese machine gun fire while filming ahead of the advancing Australian troops. He was about 12m away from the Japanese machine gun post.
So it’s worth remembering that even now war photographers frequently die or are injured or go missing, never to be seen again. Hurley was undoubtably courageous and he’d amassed a lifetime’s worth of miraculous escapes and this had probably made him think twice about this sort of stuff. In fact he wrote to Parer in 1943, take a survivor’s advice, they only - yes, a gallant chap, great pity so don’t be too brave, the coves don’t appreciate it.
But to return to Hurley, in 1942 at a bit of a loose end but he was able using contacts that he’d been developing with the British to secure a job with their Ministry of Information as Middle East Director of Army Features and Propaganda Films. His work with them in comparison to the war material was designed to be shown mostly in the Middle East to display the effectiveness of the British mandate and curb any burgeoning Arab nationalism. So he was now completely and utterly free to travel around as much as he liked pursuing the aforementioned cumulus clouds and big rugged scenery. He spent the remainder of the war and up until 1946 travelling over 200,000 miles through the Middle East, from Tripoli, to Baghdad, from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. This map was drawn by one of my colleagues in the maps team and it shows the vast area that he covered. The little red dots are areas that are featured in the exhibition.
On his return home in 1946 he found his family in dire need of financial assistance and soon set to work producing books showcasing the scenery of Australia and the Middle East. He kept travelling around the country to produce what he called photo books. These were titles such as Australia: A Camera Study and Beautiful Tasmania. I think we would refer to these books as coffee table books essentially.
It was in 1961, age 75, when travelling around Western Australia he went exploring a cave. Typically for Hurley the only way in and out of this cave was a 300 foot climb by rope ladder and it was summer, the temperature was in the high 30s and he had a heart attack on the ascent and struggled for two hours to get back to the surface. He completely naturally swears his companions to secrecy and carries on as normal. But he later dies about four months later at home surrounded by his family. The doctor who examined him one last time told Antoinette, Mrs Hurley, the old war horse is gone.
So, quite a life. As I said before how could you possibly narrow it down? The exhibition is in our Collections and Focus Room in the Treasures Gallery and as with any exhibition there are very natural constraints imposed by the size of the room. Again I couldn’t put in all 11,000 images and I really tried to do all this reading and researching in tandem with viewing the collection material. I didn’t want to be led by the objects as it were.
So the material is drawn from a collection of original Hurley prints and these show off his famous or infamous use of darkroom trickery and these are quite rare images, probably one of a kind. I was very lucky to be able to go through the collections drawer by drawer in the stack and it really was quite something to see the famous images from his time in Antarctica and on the battlefields of the first world war. But I was especially struck by his photos of the Middle East. These were a complete novelty to me and the subject matter made it absolutely clear that I had to feature them.
The exhibition also features highlights from his papers and I’ve been drawing on his diaries during this talk. He was a lifelong diary-keeper, especially when on an adventure and an excellent writer. I think you can get a real sense of what he was like as a person through reading them. It’s quite hard not to be moved reading his description of a brief moment of peace on a quiet beach during the siege of Tobruk or his rapturous account of flying over the Dead Sea with Ross Smith. Not that he was always complementary about his surroundings, his diaries also reveal a general cantankerousness as well as his attitudes to people from different ethnic backgrounds. But I’ve showcased some of his best writings about the Middle East and I also found a lovely collection of travel paraphernalia such as guides to the pyramids which reveal a bit about Hurley, the tourist.
The exhibition is rounded out with reproductions chosen from the Hurley negative collection which provides the majority of the Library’s Hurley material. We hold – this is the correct one – we hold about 10,000 negatives which given how many he destroyed during his life is really only a fraction of his output. Because the negatives are fragile and kept in cold store and also due to the sheer overwhelming size of the collection I went through them using Trove. Please know that we also use and love Trove.
So digitisation is a big part of the Library’s mission, we’re trying to make our collections as accessible as possible and in one of the first projects of its kind the Hurley negative collection was digitised in 2002. But we found when looking at them they weren’t quite up to exhibition standard, we wanted to make sure that everything looked as good as it possibly could so we decided to recapture them. This is done – I didn’t do this, this is done by our digitisation and photography team but they told me how they did it. They use a flatbed scanner called a Creo which is made by Kodak. So for any home enthusiasts among you unfortunately these scanners aren’t made anymore but I was assured that you could also use a light box and a camera. Most of these ones in the exhibition were captured using a light box.
So in terms of process firstly the negative is captured to create a master copy and then it’s inverted to create the positive copy. Then sometimes we find that there’s little errors, sometimes these come from handling or sometimes the negative has deteriorated. Sometimes there’s overexposure or there’s even scratches on the film which we try and touch up using Photoshop and this is a normal part of our process when we prepare prints for exhibition. But these particular negatives didn’t really have many scratches which I think would give Hurley a great sense of vindication if he knew. So I chose 25 of these reproductions to put in the show.
Some of them have already appeared in the slide show but there’s a few other highlights that I wanted to explore with you as well. So this first one is a photo of a very busy beach in Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv was once nothing more than a sleepy seaside town on the edge of the Mediterranean. But it was transformed during the ‘20s and ‘30s by immigration and by Jewish refugees escaping the anti-Semitism and the persecution that was rising in Europe. They couldn’t go to North America because of a particular immigration law and so many of them went to Palestine. They brought European architecture and ways of life and they helped transform this town into what is now the second most populous city in Israel. Incidentally the state of Israel was formed only two years after Hurley’s time there so it was quite an interesting time of change even just regarding population dynamics.
Alongside the events of the second world war there were also tensions between waning colonial powers and movements agitating for Arab independence and self-government. As I mentioned earlier Hurley himself was acting on behalf of imperialist powers. First he produced propaganda for the Australians and then commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to produce works that could show to everyone that the empire was running smoothly and having a positive effect on the region to appease any rising Arab nationalism. The films and slideshows that he created were meant to be shown within the Middle East and he did go to several of these screenings.
He also spent time with this really very interesting people, group called the Maʻdān and these are sometimes referred to as Marsh Arabs or Swamp Arabs. They lived a very unique way of life amongst this enormous wetland system in Iraq. They lived in reed houses, they farmed water buffalo and they travelled on boats through all the river channels. In the 1990s the Saddam Hussein regime deliberately drained the marshes and 200,000 people were displaced. So Hurley’s record of them is now a glimpse into an extraordinary way of life that despite recent efforts to restore the marshes, it’s mostly been left behind.
I also find his images of men quite interesting. I think these days the images that we are bombarded with of Muslim men or Arab men are often images of anger or violence or even fear. Hurley in contrast took photographs of fathers and sons, photographs of softness and gentleness, even joy and welcome. Hurley was a bit of a man’s man, he spent so much of his life in the company of other men and in male groups and I think he captured a great variety and breadth of masculinity. I don’t think that Hurley really liked women or spent much time with them but he also did document some really fantastic images of women as well.
Another thing to touch on is the role religion played in Hurley’s understanding of this part of the world. It’s no accident that I called the exhibition Pilgrimage. It was quite an unexpected aspect of curating the show, was to discover just how much religion influenced his conception of the Middle East. So while he was technically employed by the Australians and by the British he spent quite a lot of time visiting and photographing religious sites of all persuasions. This is not an aspect of Hurley that many people have looked at. I think most scholars have assumed if anything a scepticism or disinterest in this area. Having figurately spent quite a lot of time with Hurley over the past 18 months I’ve also noticed how little he reveals about his inner life or world view, certainly giving the impression that he had no religious beliefs himself.
Which is why it was so surprising to find so many Bible references scattered throughout Hurley’s diaries. I read this quote before, oh Palestine, Garden of Eden, home of bounteous nature, may I live to come back to you again, thou are indeed a dreamland of beauty and happiness. Again, we returned to the aerodrome without mishap after a delightful run which I can only compare with the ride of old Elijah when he went up in his heavenly chariot. Elijah was a – Old Testament prophet. Again, only a mile away on a hilltop lay Jerusalem. Every inch of ground was interesting with some Biblical association. Finally, so the long flight draws to a close, down we go lower and lower, before the front of Tiberias city drowsing by the lake. And so inland on the waters of the miracle where the master appeared to the fishermen, walking across the waters and where he quelled the storm. It is a kindly lake today, it reflects the hills.
So his practice of viewing the landscape in these Biblical terms percolated in this photography, best exemplified in his photo book, The Holy City, which we have in our collection. It was published soon after he returned home and it features images of churches, temples, synagogues, peoples and landscapes, all viewed through a specifically religious lens. So this photograph, The Wilderness of Judea, is accompanied by Hurley explaining that David was in the wilderness of Judea hiding from Saul and Psalm 63 ascribed David, gives in its first verse a sublime impression of this rugged ravine-torn region. So David was a very important Jewish king in the Old Testament.
This really intrigued me. How did someone who never mentioned going to church or temple seem so knowledgeable? Why did he write this book? Was this publication simply a way of earning money? Remembering that the Hurleys were in dire straits after the war. Why was there a market for this kind of publication? Did he have an eye to producing this book when he was still in the Middle East given that he probably didn’t realise the state of his family’s finances until he returned home to Australia?
Notably Hurley also uses Biblical overtones in photographs that do not appear in the publication such as this photograph of Galilean fishermen. As Hurley showed in that quote from his diary he was aware that the Sea of Galilee was the site for various scenes in the Bible such as Jesus feeding the multitude, calming storms and walking on water. Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen from Galilee and his teaching uses fishing as an analogy including the famous, I will make you fishers of men.
So the framing of the men against a sky straight out of a Hollywood Bible epic is particularly evocative and it seems clear to me that this is a deliberate allusion. So perhaps Hurley’s familiarity can be read as indicative of Australian culture at the time. The Bible deeply informed people of Hurley’s generation and it was one of the most common possessions of Australians at the front during the first world war. In the ‘40s and ‘50s the Bible was used publicly in a way that might seem quite foreign to us now, through civic commemoration, thorough broadcasting, through pop culture, the Hollywood Bible epic and also work by Australian artists like Margaret Preston and Arthur Boyd and many others.
So even for stoic individualistic Hurley it is apparent that the Bible was his main reference point for this part of the world. It helped - framed his experience and it shaped his art, providing pic [recording skips]. He even describes his travels there as some 40 pilgrimages. Now religious tourism in this – in the area in the holy lands obviously has a very long history going all the way back to St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. In more recent times there’s been a big divide between how orthodox and Roman Catholic pilgrims have travelled on one hand and how Protestants have travelled on the other. The Catholic and the orthodox tend to visit established churches and monuments while Protestants love to interpret the landscape through a Biblical lens, to walk where Jesus walked or as Hurley would say, where the master appeared. Interestingly Hurley exhibits both Catholic and Protestant behaviours, he’s very non-sectarian.
I spoke earlier about H Rider Haggard and Allan Quartermain who’s the hero of King Solomon’s Mines and many other stories and I think the comparison is still a useful one because to read about Hurley’s life or to curate an exhibition about him involves a lot of reading between the lines, a lot of work to untangle all the literary myths spun about him. Many writers have rather breathlessly recounted his adventures in exactly the same way as they might talk about Allan Quartermain or any other Boys’ Own adventure hero. I’ve tried not to speak the same [hankiography] 35:17 ad nauseum because there’s an [issue] 35:21 doing it, it’s not very scholarly and it might not even be true.
We’ve already looked into his habit of creating these pictorial works, not treating them as an absolute documentary recording of life. I’d be willing to bet that Hurley if still alive would be an enthusiastic user of Instagram filters and Photoshop. As another scholar has noted, Hurley believed that nature should never be seen as she was as through a glass, darkly, but as she should be.
He was also a bit of an imperialist and he aligned himself with a long tradition of ideas about adventure narratives, about natives, about masculine exploration and his photographs show a sort of colonising vision. He would photograph people as exotic ethnographic types such as the noble savage, the gentle farmer or even the silent Arab rather than as individual human beings. He almost never recorded the names of the people he photographed, particularly when they weren’t European and this is especially noticeable in his work from New Guinea.
But he was also remarkably adept at cultivating this heroic Allan Quartermain image of himself to open doors and make money. He was a consummate storyteller and he loved to tell yarns to a captive audience around the campfire, in a wartime dugout or huddled under a makeshift shelter in the Antarctic.
Alasdair McGregor points out in his book he would often exaggerate or even lie to put himself front and centre at several events after the fact. For example when the shipwrecked crew of The Endurance first spotted the rescue ship on the horizon Hurley apparently dismissed it as wishful thinking but in his own account he claims that he was the one to first spot the ship while others were being the silly sceptics.
So behind all these myths, all these exaggerations lies a man who seems a relic of a bygone era, one who didn’t quite fit into his suburban Sydney surroundings. He avoided most company, particularly that of women, when he was at home with his family, which happened very infrequently, he was often gone for years at a time but when he was at home he spent most of his time working in his dark room or in the garden. By the end of his life he had few close friends. His own daughter said he never, never should have married, he never should have had the responsibility of children. He was a get up and go man, an explorer, an adventurer, he could not bear to being restricted and it was clear that he could never be a normal husband or father. He was different.
These shades in his character are a little harder to swallow. I think we sometimes prefer historic people to be purely heroic. Is there room in our conception of this really very remarkable and very talented photographer for examination of the way he upheld imperialist narratives? Or the knowledge that he was an absent husband and father? Is there room in our conception also for what for some of us might be the uncomfortable complication of his religious art? The age-old question with Hurley has been and remains the question of truth. Does the truth get in the way of a good story or photograph? Whether or not Hurley’s exaggerations are acceptable in either art form I will leave up to you. Thank you.
G: Thanks, Ros, and I think you’ve just scratched the surface of Hurley there so we might throw it open for some questions. We’ve got about 10, 15 minutes for questions if you’d like to ask some. There’s microphones on the side and we’d ask you to use those, please. Question down here.
A: Thank you for a very interesting talk. In those composite photos do we know how many he did – I don’t mean of the number of photos but whether he sort of had a record of eight negatives imposed on top of each other as opposed to say one or – sorry, one on top of another or maybe two on top of another?
R: That’s a great question. I think as far as I know he was definitely pushing around four or five per image. I’m not sure what the actual record is for how many images per print but I think probably around four or five is the limit.
A: Thanks so much, Rosalind. I was deeply moved by those very sympathetic portrayal of Arab men in the exhibition and I'm wondering in the written narrative, the diary that he keeps, does he also record the devotion that’s shown in Islam? Is there a respect for another faith there? You talked a lot about the Christian allusion in his work and I’m wondering if you can tell us more about his view of Islam?
R: That’s a fantastic question, thank you. He does record hearing the call to prayer and that was obviously just part of the fabric of being in the Middle East. He also has lots of encounters with Muslim men. There’s wonderful accounts of his interaction with the Bedouin people. In terms of reflections on Islam himself he didn’t have many, I think because he himself comes from a Christianised culture. I think Islam would have seemed quite foreign to him and he wouldn’t have been reading the landscape through Islamic terms. Does that answer your question? Thank you.
A: Thanks very much for a wonderful talk. Mine was just a sort of technical question if you like. I noticed that a number of the negatives are nitrate and a la cinema paradiso. Are there any issues about storing these?
R: Yes. If you don’t know, nitrate negatives have been known to spontaneously combust which is probably why they burnt so well in the middle of the desert. We have a special nitrate cold store thankfully nowhere near here. It’s out in Mitchell – sorry if you live near there but yes, it’s - we do keep them quite separate and away from any other collection material so if worst comes to worse we don’t lose everything.
A: Ros, I just wonder in the diaries does he make any mention of the crusades or does he use that narrative structure at all?
R: No, sorry. Apart from referring to it as sort of a pilgrimage which I think you can date back to the middle ages or even earlier he doesn’t really mention the crusades although actually now that I think about it the way that the press, and I think a lot of the western world conceptualised Jerusalem coming back in the first world war into Christian hands, they did often I think talk about it in that sort of crusader – not crusader but that sort of struggle, yeah.
A: Thank you very much both for the exhibition and for the talk. I want to pick a fight with you.
A: You were sort of apologetic about Hurley’s racism for want of a better word, his sympathy with imperialism. What I want to question is whether by doing that you’re actually suggesting that the vast majority of us weren’t racist and imperialist as white Australians at that time because I think we were and to suggest that – to question whether he should have been is to almost let the rest of us off.
R: That’s a fantastic question and I feel like I could talk about that topic for hours. I think in some instances some of the things he did were particularly egregious, particularly with the cultural artefacts in Papua New Guinea. The colonial authorities did think that what he did was over the top and so we do have examples of people – his contemporaries calling his behaviour into question. In terms of whether or not examining historical people, I guess examining their morality and whether or not their behaviour in light of their context and how that impacts how we examine the past and what the wider Australia was right like that’s a very complex question. But yeah, people in history weren’t always nice, I think that’s the way that I can – I don’t think I answered that very well, I think that’s a longer discussion, sorry.
A: Thanks, Ros, for your talk, very comprehensive talk. I’m familiar with some of Hurley’s Antarctic work and there on occasion not only combining the negatives but on more than one occasion he combined the expedition’s artist’s drawings with his print. There’s one there where he’s got the assembled [unclear] 45:15 to be rescued and in that he has used the drawings made by the company artist.
R: Thank you for your comment. I think what you’re asking is whether or not he used drawings in his composites? Is that right?
A: Yeah, apparently he has done one – more than one occasion.
R: Yeah, I think so, I think you can sort of see some very early work from his Endurance expedition, things that do look very much not like a photograph and I think he would have as you suggest used all sorts of things to combine them together.
G: Well I’d like you all to join with me with thanking Ros for that wonderful overview.
G: A couple of quick advertisements. Copies of Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life by Alasdair McGregor are available in the Library’s bookshop and I think Ros mentioned that they’re at a 10% off today. I’d also like to draw your attention to the NLA Treasures dinner which will be about Frank Hurley this year, that will be the theme which will be held at the end of this month on the 26th of April. The dinner will be an in conversation panel with Frank Hurley or for Alasdair McGregor and writer/director, Simon Nasht of the renowned Hurley documentary, The Man Who Made History. So you can get tickets and tea towels for that dinner on the NLA website.
So that brings us to a close, thank you all for coming and please once again thank Ros for a wonderful talk.
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