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Treasures Dinner: Frank Hurley
Behind the Lens
Behind the Lens
26 April 2019
Alasdair McGregor and Simon Nasht discuss the life and work of Frank Hurley, including his work in the Antarctic and his stunning visual archive of major events both at home and overseas over a dinner discussion at the National Library.
The Library re-issued the book Frank Hurley: A Photographers Life, written by McGregor, portraying the life and career of Australia's first internationally recognised photographer and highlighting the sacrifices and risks to obtain the 'perfect' photo.
Hurley Dinner Conversation
*Speakers: Genevieve Jacobs (G), Simon Nash (S), Alasdair McGregor (A), Female (F)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 26 April 2019
G: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening to you. What a wonderful meal, what a wonderful gathering to be here in the foyer of the National Library, this temple to learning, to literature. My name’s Genevieve Jacobs, a very warm welcome from me too and I’d also like to acknowledge that we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal people, to acknowledge their ongoing custodianship of this place and to pay my respects to their elders past, present, emerging and to any other elders who may be present.
Tonight the story of an Australian great and someone who was also great at crafting his own legend. Frank Hurley was a pioneering Australian photographer, an adventurer, an explorer, a man who loved a good story and who knew how to shape one. He photographed Antarctica, the fields of Flanders, the New Guinea highlands, he made blockbuster films, he shot two world wars yet who was he really? What motivated him? You can see one of the significant bodies of his work here at the Library in Pilgrimage: Hurley and the Middle East and we’ll talk more specifically about those images a little later.
But with me tonight two guests to help us shed light on the puzzles of a photographer and a showman. Alasdair McGregor wrote Frank Hurley, A Photographer’s Life and filmmaker, Simon Nash made the documentary, Frank Hurley, The Man Who Made History. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining me.
S: Thank you, Genevieve.
A: Thank you.
G: Alasdair, what we know of Hurley’s early life is sketchy but by his own account adventurous with a capital A and as you say in the book something almost out of Dickens. I’m wondering whether his departure from formal education at the age of 13 in a way sets a pattern for his life.
A: Oh it does, without a doubt, yes, he ran away from the classroom after apparently some – a prank you might say. A prank gone wrong, he claims that he was wrongly accused of this and in his haste –
G: Caustic soda on the teacher’s seat.
A: Apparently, yes and he’s said to have thrown an inkwell at the gentleman which wouldn’t have gone down – well he bolted down to the railway goods yards at Darling Harbour in Sydney, supposedly hid away in a goods wagon. Next morning he finds himself in Mt Victoria in the middle of winter and the station master discovers him and he’s given a choice to be sent back to school and his father’s displeasure which you can imagine would have been quite severe or apparently there’s this young railway navvy just itching to have a go at this sort of fellow. Of course Frank was something of a playground pugilist and so they had the fight and guess who won?
S: Yeah, right.
A: So Frank’s given the chance, he can go wherever he likes so he gets back on the train, he ends up not far away in Lithgow and Lithgow it seems is where it all starts because several things coalesce there. He gets a job quickly as a sort of errand boy ‘round the – it was an iron – it was steel works, iron works, it was one of the early industrial sites in Australia, coal mining nearby. So he gets a job, he finds some lodging but he supposedly befriends, and I keep saying supposedly because this is the myth, this is the man making up his own story. He gets to know one of the senior men in the iron works who’s a keen photographer and he goes out on weekend excursions with his big plate camera, his heavy timber tripod and of course Lithgow is near the glories of the Blue Mountains, the big sandstone cliffs and abutments and the forest and the whole thing so there’s nature.
Frank is instantly switched on to photography and nature and he stays there for one, two years, we don’t quite know how long, he goes back to Sydney, his father forgives him. His father finances him into a photographic business eventually to the tune of £500 which is an astounding amount of money in those days so is it true? Is it not? Well it’s the Hurley myth right from the start.
G: His father in fact seems to have been quite understanding because on receiving the message that young Frank is fine and in employment his father says oh yeah, terrific, get on with it, that’s all alright. Yes, you are only 13 and you’ve run away to Lithgow but that’s quite okay.
A: He’s learning on the job.
G: I mean he seems to have a gift of sensing the mood of the times and a way of putting himself right at the forefront of those changes. I mean he certainly did as a young photographer, he made incredibly rapid progress. He’s only his 20s when he’s being listed alongside the likes of Cazneaux as a prominent practitioner. Why photography? What appealed to him about photography and the time, this pre-war period, the changes that were taking place?
A: Well it was a very significant time in the development of photography. Charles Eastman who founded Kodak of course developed dry plate photography which meant that photography came out of the highly technical skilled process of virtually taking your darkroom with you on the back of a wagon or whatever and these difficult to manage ephemeral processes into a way where you could expose your plates virtually at your leisure if you carefully stored them away in light-proof conditions then take them back to the darkroom and develop them. So – and it meant that photographers were more mobile, they weren’t confined to the studio and so it was this great surge of interest in photography, not only from its technical standpoint and for professionals but amateurs come in the mix.
So Frank is also involved with amateur societies, he joins the Ashfield District Camera Club and they’re like the sort of computer nerds of the late 19th, early 20th century, all these eager young lads going out on the weekends with their tripods and cameras and swapping ideas and darkroom techniques and all this sort of thing. Frank starts writing at an early age for the photographic press and so – and then of course as I said his father finances him into a studio, £500 supposedly, that produces postcards. Postcards – there was a great craze apparently worldwide for postcards. No, they weren’t just things that you sent when you were on holidays of wish you were here sort of glib greetings but they –
S: They were the SMS of their age.
A: Exactly, yes.
G: Simon, what’s the quality of that work because we do have a number of these very early Hurley images. Some of those have survived. What are the qualities of the work? What does he bring to it? I mean the images are often rushing trains, there’s sort of high –
S: Those early days I mean you see an artist working his way through first the technology and then actually claiming his own eye. You do see that, I mean it’s there. I mean there’s definitely influences from the great Harold Cazneaux and others that – who were the prominent early Australian photographers, you can see that they’re – and that pictorialism that you’ll see in the exhibition in the Middle East. They’re postcards, basically. So you see him working his way through but he does develop his own eye pretty quickly. I mean I was interested of course in also seeing his early film work and that’s quite remarkable because the story goes that I think – Alasdair will know better than me – is that before going off on the first Mawson expedition to the Antarctic where he basically blags his way onto the job by confronting Mawson on a train and not letting go until he gets a yes – poor Mawson – but he got the film camera that he took to the Antarctic I think what, weeks? Maybe days before they left and he had never handled one before.
A: The story goes that he had some quick instruction filming office workers on their lunch break in one of those –
S: Before he’s going to the most remote place on earth.
G: But he’s got technical skill and facility –
S: Oh yeah, very handy, he was good with his hands. There was no doubt – he was a good man in a crisis, I mean that comes through again and again certainly on the Shackleton expedition where people actually tur – Shackleton was concerned about Hurley being a potential rival if there was a rift and Shackleton very wisely put him in his own tent so he could keep him close. Because Hurley could fix things, he could do things with his hands, he was a very useful bloke to have.
G: Simon, he loves – and we see this in the early photographs – he loves a whiff of danger. The photographs that you sort of see of onrushing steam trains and the like.
S: Yeah, real or imagined or created. No, he was definitely crafting his life as an adventurer and that was his business, he was – he had a few colleagues, one of them another much less known Australian photographer and adventurer, Hubert Wilkins, who I’ve written about who got a message at one stage. Wilkins was much less a showman than Hurley but was told Wilkins, we’re in the adventure business, you’ve got to behave like that with the PR man and the – and Hurley was a one-man operation, he was a corporation, really. I mean he was technically proficient, he was definitely brave, he was very kind of canny, I think, with opportunities. He was pretty good with money or chased Shackleton endlessly for unpaid bills and things, he wasn’t going to let him get away with it, chased him to the frontline, world war one like cough up.
A: There’s a story in that, that’s for sure.
S: So he was adept and I often drive past – most days I drive to work past the Forest Lodge Primary School and think that guy left there as a 12-year-old and the things he did and the places he went at the time he did it when most people barely went beyond their home town was pretty amazing.
G: Well and Alasdair back to you –
A: Well that comes back to – I think you’re trying to get a feel for well why photography? That’s quite simple in a way and in fact he writes about this and he said in a rather florid way, which he was wont to do at times, that photography opened the golden door of adventure for him and there are these wonderful stories for instance in the early days, for instance Shackleton coming back from Antarctica, his ship, The Nimrod, comes into Sydney Harbour. He’s now in the postcard business and it – Shackleton’s famous, he’s just almost reached the South Pole, it makes the press and so Frank gets down there, he takes photographs of The Nimrod, he takes a portrait photograph of Shackleton, he takes a photograph of one of the sledge dogs that had come back with them. Also Harry Houdini comes to Sydney. Harry Houdini comes to Sydney and is feted and he made an early flight I think at Digger’s Rest in Victoria, he’s world famous and this man is making a business out of adventure. Guess what? The Ashfield District Camera Club hosted Houdini to lunch. I could –
S: Which was Frank setting himself up.
A: Exactly but –
S: I’ve got a name I can call, there’s someone who will know me and the camera was his ticket to that.
G: Which was presumably a reason for joining the Mawson Antarctic expedition and look, reading your book, Alasdair, it occurred to me that I’d never really placed Mawson before in that post federation political ferment of energy and ideas and adventure and vision, this was a really exciting place to be.
S: When Australia had it, Genevieve, I might add. It was an extraordinary time post federation and pre-first world war where we believed we could do anything.
G: The last conversation I had here in the National Library was in fact about the women’s suffrage movement with Clare Wright on exactly that, our leadership there. So he’s drawn on the greatest adventure of all to go to one of the toughest places on earth and that sort of thrilling and Boys’ Own adventure stuff with Mawson. But, Alasdair, when Hurley heads off with Shackleton of course it does in fact turn into one of the great Australian feats of all time and the survival of the icebound crew of The Endurance, Hurley’s extraordinary photos of the ship just tilting in this icy vice as the ice crushes and bursts it and then Shackleton’s remarkable rescue mission on the James Caird while the others with Hurley huddle on Elephant Island. This is an extraordinary thing to survive, much less A, to photograph and B, to bring the photos back.
A: Well it’s the sort of episode in history that’s created its own life. It lives today and I live it every year, I’m fortunate enough to go back to Antarctica and I keep thinking if there was one missed step I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have written that book. It’s all so tenuous, the survival of these people and the situation is just extraordinary. And Hurley, one of the – he’s renowned for his bravery, yes but there’s also this sort of protracted and long drawn-out tension in these situations where you’ve got to be brave every day, you’ve got to keep going and he’s keep going documenting this, he’s photographing it. For part of the time he’s filming it and he’s doing this in a very deliberate and a very calculating way because he realises that if they get out of this there is this golden commercial opportunity that they are going to clean up –
S: I’d like to – I mean I contend in the film I made and you may well disagree but I think - I argue if we didn’t have the photos and the films of the Shackleton expedition it would be just a footnote in the other expeditions, the many failed expeditions.
A: That’s my thesis entirely.
S: I think you would agree is that it is the artefacts that make it history.
G: Just on that, Simon, there is a photograph of the James Caird setting to sea from Elephant Island to go for this remarkable, extraordinary trip to South Georgia to save everyone. There's a brilliant sunrise behind it and it’s a great image but Hurley always has –
S: Touched by the gods.
G: Touched by something more than the gods, in fact. So Hurley’s always got that eye to the story and he's got this fundamental instinct with two consequences. One is that it is brilliant storytelling, so compelling but the other is that you’re never absolutely sure what the raw unadorned truth might have been because –
S: Oh we know what the truth was, it wasn’t that.
G: Yes, it wasn’t that.
S: That picture of the arrival is actually the picture of the departure that he’s just swapped and used.
A: That’s one of the most notorious crimes in a sense in photography that Frank was involved in, that when they got back to England, and you must remember this is 1917, it’s - the world is tearing itself apart and this expedition, this small group of men who’d come out of the wilderness, they have great propaganda value. So he’s under great pressure to produce images for the press and by this stage photographic illustrations and the papers were quite sophisticated so they could tell a story. So for some reason, and I won’t go into all the whole background of this image, but it’s – he got hold of his original negative. Now this is not a glass plate, this is nitrate film and there are two boats in the original, there’s the James Caird which had to make this great ocean passage over nearly 800 nautical miles.
S: Basically a row boat.
A: Yeah, basically a row boat, that’s right and it’s heavily laden so they pulled it out past the surf so that they could load it with ballast and water and food and everything for this arduous trip ahead so it was empty, they took it out past the surf and then they loaded it. So they used one of the other boats to relay all the supplies out but of course Frank took a photograph of that and by this stage all he’s left with is three rolls of film and a folding pocket camera so it’s basically an amateur camera, all his large plate cameras have been destroyed –
A: - they’ve been – because they’re too heavy, they couldn’t carry them. So he has to be very careful about what he photographs but this is the penult – this is the critical moment in his story and all these poor forlorn chaps, they’re on the beach waving goodbye but there are two boats in the correct image. Of course that would be very confusing in the telling of the story so what he does is he gets a scalpel or whatever and he just hacks away at the original negative, he removes the second boat so it looks as though this little boat is rowing to the shore –
G: Alone in the vast wilderness.
A: - when they are eventually rescued. Now why he did that nobody can explain because he could have made a copy negative and so on and this priceless original negative has been vandalised by the photographer.
S: He’s right.
G: But, Simon, it takes us really early into the peace to this interesting idea about what photography is and what its role is and there’s this longstanding sort of presumption that part of the value of photography is that it tells the unvarnished truth. Now that’s not true, it’s never been true. A camera’s a tool just like a paintbrush or a chisel –
S: He said almost those exact words.
G: But Hurley uses his darkroom skills, he uses his fertile imagination. In a sense right at this very early juncture he’s creating a photographic performance as much as simply recording a moment in time.
S: Yeah. Alasdair and I have both been lucky enough to see one remarkable little bit of Hurley memorabilia that very few people will ever get to see because it’s in a little tiny darkroom in Mawson’s Hut in Antarctica and there written – it’s about the size of a telephone booth if anyone remembers what that is and inside that on his little plate table he has written in pencil scraped into the wood, near enough is never good enough. It’s a reminder to him about the need – he’s not talking about effort alone, he’s not just talking about that, he’s talking about effect and he’s driven – and that’s pre-Shackleton, that’s 1911 or ’12, isn’t it?
A: Yeah, 1912.
S: Yeah so he’s there saying I have one opportunity only to tell the story I have to tell and I will never compromise and I’ve seen plates there that are actually in the [unclear] 21:13 collection. You can see he’s written reject on the plate so he will never be tempted to use it. He’s sitting there in the Shackleton expedition, he’s got to get rid of two-thirds of his collection of these glass plates and he’s sitting there as The Endurance is being crushed in the ice and Shackleton said we’re off, we got to go. Frank, you’ve got to dump, you – we can’t bring them and he’s sitting there and he’s smashing two-thirds of these glass plates. Yet even [if he’s at] 21:41 he writes that he wants to go back and just take a few more, I just want to take a few more.
G: It’s the perfect, he’s on the quest for the perfect in his mind, in his vision.
S: Yeah well his colleagues are saying Frank, you’d rather take bloody glass than food. What are you thinking? He’s thinking very clearly because we don’t exist as history or as a story without these glass plates.
G: Which takes us nicely, Alasdair, to the First World War so we’ve got a brilliantly fearless young photographer, he’s been to Antarctica twice. He’s still only his late 20s, actually, at this juncture and he ends up on the western front with Charles Bean. So this fervent historian and record-taker who’s committed body and soul to being the nation’s eyewitness to the Great War. Now Hurley does have an offsider, there’s Wilkins whom Simon mentioned a moment ago but what happens when Frank Hurley with this showmanship, this zeal, this idea of the performance of photography meets Bean with all his meticulous regard for the truth of our nation’s story?
A: It’s very puzzling in some ways because Hurley writes in his diary that I’ve been employed if you like – he doesn’t use that word but he’s been engaged to take care of propaganda or it might even have been Bean who said that. Hurley’s the propaganda man, Wilkins is the record photographer. So Hurley takes that literally, he has to stir not the troops but the public to support the war effort. What they’re aiming at specifically is a major expedition that was to be staged in 1918 in London of war artists and photographers so there are people like George Lambert and so on, Will Dyson and they’re recording the Australians at war because the Canadians are doing it –
S: And the British weren’t.
A: And the British weren’t. Lord Beaverbrook put his own fortune into the Canadian record and there’s this wonderful story that Bean get – I’m getting off the track a little bit here but it’s worth telling that Hurley was nearly poached by Beaverbrook and of course this – Bean just freaks out at this possibility that it’s almost as if Hurley’s going over to the enemy. So the two never get on and Hurley wants to make these composite images of the battlefield because he feels that as a photographer – can you imagine standing out there on the battlefield? There are shells bursting around you, there’s bullets flying past your head, you’re standing there under a dark cloth with a big plate camera. The bravery involved in doing that’s just amazing but you're taking –
S: Or the silliness.
A: The silliness. You're taking one single image so Hurley thinks how can I show the breadth of modern warfare from the trenches to the aerial bombardments, the dog fights, the explosions? It was warfare on a vast scale so he thought well I’ll combine negatives, I’ll take some photographs of planes and the troops hopping out of the trenches and so on and combine them and he made the exhibition that eventually was staged in London, they basically tableau these huge pictures. I can’t remember the exact dimensions, they’re gigantic –
S: They’re not that much smaller than that work –
A: Sort of up to the top of the curtain here. There’s an image in my book which gives a graphic example of scale because it’s against the brick wall and you can see all the brick [courses] 25:53 and there’s a ladder beside it. They’re huge. To our modern eye they look a bit crude but they must have made a tremendous impact. Well to Bean these were anathema, he thought that they were a lie, basically.
S: And Bean made sure they were never seen in Australia.
G: And this is interesting, Simon, because Hurley fully believes it’s his patriotic duty to create as stirring and powerful and evocative a representation of war as possible.
S: It’s a really good question about him, whether those images were more an accurate representation of the war than the simple captured moment that his colleague, Wilkins, was instructed to take and –
G: Well he’s not embellishing just for the hell of it, he’s doing it because he believes in what he needs to present.
S: I think Bean probably felt he crossed the line, though, in the embellishment, I – there’s – I mean you can go through the NLA collection and you can see the composite – the individual frames and you can reconstruct what he put together and they often come from seven or eight different images including one famous one of troops going over the trenches shot from a little high. That was actually shot in an exercise in Britain, in a training exercise and he’s added that and for Bean that was too far, that was a step too far. I’m sure they would have found a compromise. It’s a really interesting argument and it comes back to something that I always found interesting about Hurley was that it’s a very modern argument, it’s a very contemporary one. It hasn’t gone out of style, this idea of what’s real and what’s not and what’s fake and what isn’t.
Hurley kind of invented that question because he was really the first – I think possibly on a global scale that was actually in this – midst of these great events in history and was creating a story around them from his remarkable darkroom skills. We should not forget that he was an excellent technician and he was truly good at his craft and I have sat with specialists in photography who’ve looked – worked with glass plates. They have difficulty today using the same techniques that Hurley did, not digitised, to create what he created so comprehensively and so effectively. One of the beauties of course, and the NLA had represented this before and talked about it before and shown it, is that I think of the 10,000 images that – in the collection here, I’d say about 1,000 of them are clouds that he’s collected at various times to add the magnificent moment of the sun coming through the cloud at the appropriate moment. I mean there were so many clouds.
G: That’s a good one, I’ll be able to use that later.
S: Yeah, I’ll have to save that one.
G: And he is, he’s a really fast mover because after the war there’s a Mrs Hurley, there are twins which doesn’t stop him from setting out in very short order of the Papua New Guinea highlands and some of his lesser known work but it turns out quite deeply historically significant because it gives us a remarkable insight into the innermost secrets of an ancient culture. Now, Alasdair, just – this goes to the idea of the showman but it also goes to the idea of sort of anything for the perfect picture, his methods in obtaining these images. The images themselves have turned out to be deeply significant, the way he got them could frankly be described even at the time as pretty unscrupulous. What happened?
A: Pretty slipshod, that’s for sure.
G: Slippery, someone said earlier. Excellent and you both nodded in agreement.
A: No, that’s true. He actually made two expeditions to Papua and the Torres Strait. The first one was a commission from the Anglican Board of Mission based in Sydney –
G: Who did not know what they were getting into.
A: No. They wanted a photographer and filmmaker to go and record their activities in converting the local populace to Christianity and all very pious and so on which Frank did to an extent but he also saw this great opportunity to gather his own material. But in that first expedition he felt it was a little bit tame although he did collect some valuable material but he wanted to go back and by this stage - we didn’t get into his first foray into the Middle East where he started to fly. He flew with Ross Smith, great soldier and aviator and that gave him another perspective and of course when you think about flying in a place like New Guinea I mean he was flying in – well he took two aircraft and really only used one. But these very flimsy flying boats and they flew across the Gulf of Papua in one of these and he actually said that this was the most terrifying episode in his entire life and this is after all his experiences on the western front and Antarctica so you can imagine what that was like.
But getting to your point about his purpose there on the second expedition, was to collect material for basically documentary performances and in those days it wasn’t a film with sound and so on that we’re used to, it was almost a choreographed performance where you would have live music, say, you would have a collection of artefacts and this is – he had an eye for the most sensational things, the clubs –
S: Lots of shrunken skulls.
A: Shrunken heads, the skulls, all the gruesome material which ‘course taken out of context it makes no sense who have greater sensibilities but back then it was head-hunters of Papua and the more sensational the better. Well his collection methods were slipshod at best, it was a few sticks of tobacco, some – a bolt of red calico cloth and we’ll take that, thank you very much. Of course they even got to the point of taking sacred objects out of long houses which – and these men, these uninitiated men – never supposed to be in these places, I mean it completely freaked out the villagers where he went. Simon should say more about this because he’s actually been back to these villages decades later.
S: It’s a tragedy and it’s a triumph and it’s very Frank, it’s never simple. It’s never simple. I went back there, we showed that film that Frank did on his infamous trip in a very remote village in the Gulf where he had been, where he had taken artefacts from that village which had, in Frank’s film, been these magnificent long houses that would house up to 150 people, would sleep there. I mean gigantic, the size of this room, these long – even longer and they’re gone, there’s just the rotting logs and we – Christian missionaries have been through and things are changed and it’s corrugated iron and radio. There’s no roads, still quite a journey to get there.
We showed that film in that village outside on a big white sheet and projected it and they loved to see it, they loved to see it. So for all of his misdemeanours, for all of his insensitivities and he was pretty much a product of his time - only he was very Edwardian even, even long after Edward was gone - he captured something remarkable that will live through time and it has value to those people. It has value to us but it came at a cost.
G: Well it also essentially advanced his own commercial interests, there’s no doubt about that.
S: Oh yeah and as usual Frank did bloody well out of it, yeah, I mean he showed that film around the world, he sold out Carnegie Hall, the Albert Hall. He was on the verge of going Hollywood, actually as Alasdair said. He just probably missed the boat a little bit in terms of things had moved on.
A: The fashion had changed.
G: I just found it fascinating reading about this expedition, that there were people on the expedition who were saying look hang on, Frank, you can’t ransack people’s long houses –
S: Oh it was a political scandal back in Australia, that people wanted to shut him down and bring it back but he was pretty well connected, though, Frank, wasn’t he? He got off by the skin of his teeth on that one. Others suffered badly including his so-called chief scientist on that expedition who would subsequently commit suicide, sadly. Frank just brushed it off, really.
A: He did. Well he also – he was a great manipulator of the press and he was sending back reports –
S: He always had his story set.
A: - to the Sydney Sun newspaper.
G: Well he blamed invidious bureaucracy and sort of the dull hand of heartless regulators.
S: He spun it really well.
A: He spun it brilliantly. As a writer generally if he's describing the scene he’s in he’s a much better photographer but when the invective starts he’s brilliant. As a biographer I always cherish this moment when I came across Frank in high dudgeon, he’s absolutely marvellous.
G: He played the victim very well, I mean this does lead to an interlude, a number of films. The Hound of the Deep, a flaming love story of the tropics.
S: His attempt to make a narrative film. He jumped the shark as they say.
G: The Jungle Woman based on the premise, and here I quote, a dusky chieftain’s daughter and a wounded young prospector flung together in the Papuan wilds where no manmade law could reach out and say thou shalt not. Really. Lay it on with a shovel, Frank.
A: The dusky chieftain’s daughter was a woman by the name of Grace Severi, I think is the way you pronounce it.
S: Black-faced up from Sydney.
A: Who was a Sydney actress.
S: Never mind.
A: Who had the dark makeup put on every day –
S: There’s great behind the scenes of that film, actually, and them coming off the boat at Moresby and looking like what the hell? It sort of – it stunned these actors, turned up and gone oh –
A: And the other thing about that is because Frank had really soiled his nest if you like, that the Australian colonial authorities forbad him to make the film in Papua, he went to the other side of the border to Dutch New Guinea to make this film and these – as Simon says these actors who’d come from England, what the hell are we doing here?
S: Don’t worry, we’re going to New Guinea, not Papua. Forget about it.
G: Let’s move past dusky maidens and there’s even a clergyman in there somewhere who’s seduced and all kinds of things go on but let’s –
G: Very racy.
A: Well they call these things – and seriously they’re described as sex films at the time.
G: Yes, that’s right and the censors were quite active with Frank’s work, there was – there were glimpses of flesh.
S: It was a brief moment in his career, to be fair.
G: Yeah, indeed. But look, let’s get to the second world war because this is the material that we see in the exhibition here and it connects to all the experiences of the first world war and to Hurley’s instincts and his practice and maybe perhaps to sort of a turning point in his life as well. Somewhat unexpectedly in 1940 he’s put in charge of the Australian photographic output in the Middle East. Now this is not the first world war, things have changed. The understanding of photography and its role has changed. He’s in contact, Alasdair, with the likes of Damien Parer. There’s a sense that this is a different era and perhaps different values pertain to how one represents war.
A: The relationship with Parer and George Silk, a young –
S: A generation younger.
A: - New Zealand photographer - Silk and Parer are roughly the same age – as you say they are a different generation, they’re a new breed. They are the photojournalists so they’re not interested in perfect exposures, perfect composition, they want to see the fear in a soldier’s face, they want to see the fatigue, the boredom, the gritty stuff of war. So Parer would put himself between the enemy and the advancing troops and of course he paid eventually with his life in the Pacific.
S: Won an Academy Award, by the way, Australia’s first.
A: Exactly. They didn’t mind if their movie film was scratched because dust’d get into the camera and the whole thing but to Frank that was – well that was ruined, you’d have to toss that out. He was still looking at the Middle East as this grand vista, almost the Biblical scene. They were trying to record fastmoving engagements, tank battles where the enemy’d disappear in a cloud of dust as they advanced and he’s still using the heavy cinecameras and still cameras and so on. He’s very much yesterday’s man but he has an interesting relationship with both Silk and Parer, he’s almost like this father figure and he’s fussing about them and he’s worried about their safety and trying to advise them that don’t take too many risks, it’s not worth it and so on and don’t fall for the government spin on all this, they’ll only take advantage of you. He’s very concerned about their welfare so it’s a very interesting relationship.
S: Still working like a demon too.
A: Oh yes.
S: He writes working on New Year’s Eve, I remember, doesn’t he?
A: Yeah, that’s right, just –
G: But Simon, the interesting thing about that output, and we see that because Pilgrimage is all about Hurley and the Middle East, he returns as Alasdair said to a place that he’d fallen passionately in love with in the first world war but the focus turns to local people, to places where people lived, to the lives of people like the Marsh Arabs, the workers.
S: Yeah, it’s interesting just looking there, he didn’t often – he didn’t take many portraits throughout his career, it’s the one place where he did – I mean he did in New Guinea but that was because they were exotic and he was not really interested in the people he was there meeting. But in the Middle East he did take some beautiful portraits and you’ll see a few of them represented nicely in the exhibition. Yeah, he – I think he – I don’t think he was a religious man but he felt being in the Biblical lands moved him, he related to that. He certainly stayed on, I mean he volunteered to stay after the war. He stayed six years, leaving the wife with –
G: Patient Mrs Hurley and a large brood of children were left in the eastern suburbs.
S: Adele back in the northern beaches, in Collaroy. She never forgave him. He – yeah, he volunteered to stay on. I think he didn’t want to kind of face the mortality that he was sort of out of style and so he’d just do one more gig.
G: Many of them are quite gentle photographs and I know that this is one of the things that curating this exhibition has been about, is to say here are sort of quite intimate portraits of people seen in the course of their everyday lives doing things that are simple, humble, quite straightforward –
A: They have a great dignity about them.
G: Enormous dignity, enormous dignity.
S: Nicely put, Alasdair. Yes, the – they’re still very much Hurley pictures, you can spot them from a mile away. After you looked at a few you know them when you seem them but he’s more interested in what he’s photographing for a change.
G: Yeah, that’s right.
S: Usually he’s not that actually interested in the figures or they’re just tools to be manipulated and moved around in the great vista in a sort of endless search for perfection, really, a photographic perfection which was either through the lens or created in a darkroom. These images are more capturing slices of life. There’s a beautiful one – one of the ones I love in there is I guess it’s – it must be early – just immediately post-war. It’s Haifa, it’s people down at the beach. It’s a packed beach, looks like Bondi, it’s – and these would of course when you think about it, would have been absolutely newly arrived European Jews who’ve come to Israel before it’s Israel, it’s like two or three years before the state is declared and they’ve just packed there to congregate together and Hurley’s taken this - for him probably just a commonplace, I’ll just go out and take a few pictures today but he’s captured - just yet again he can’t help himself, he’s captured a remarkable moment. It’s done with fidelity, there’s nothing faked about that image, it’s just a straightforward afternoon shoot he’s gone out.
G: That’s actually the interesting thing. If you look at those photographs of the land of Judea, of Palestine, they are not in the main photographs in which he’s done a bit of fiddling around to make things look better.
S: No, there’s a few skies in there, of course he can’t resist.
G: There’s a few skies, there’s a few clouds ‘cause he had a lot of clouds.
S: But also they’re optimistic, they’re humanised which he didn’t often get into and it’s kind of he’s captured what he felt, which is probably imagined as much as anything else, that there’s something special about this place, these lands, the history of it.
A: Very respectful.
S: They’re respectful. As we know – and they’re just - because obviously they’re before the great turmoils that will tear the Middle East apart where these people are now foes, no longer just populating the landscapes.
A: Again they’re a great ethnographic document. There’s a wonderful photograph in there of the Marsh Arabs.
S: Who Saddam Hussein wiped out.
A: Saddam Hussein has wiped off.
G: Whose village Hurley found idyllically beautiful. Last question for both of you. Hurley lived until 1962. In the 1950s he was still climbing around the Blue Mountains where he was quite happy to cut down trees if they impeded the viewpoint.
A: And putting Middle East skies into the background. And the drop-in clouds.
G: Drop-in skies from Palestine if they dramatised things. Now he did well financially, we’ve probably hinted that as a husband and father he perhaps in the modern view may have left something to be desired but let’s talk about his legacy as a photographer against, Simon, the likes of say Max Dupain and David Moore but for both of you how does the old showman stack up in 2019? Simon, what do you think?
S: Well I think – there’s two ways of approaching it when I look at biographies, when I do film biographies anyway. You can let the work speak for itself or you need to add the layer of the photographer, the artist as well and I think you can’t separate Frank, the man from Frank, the photo. I mean the images do stand on their own. I don’t think he was the genius of a Dupain, I don’t think he was a once in a lifetime but somehow the significance of his work is great because it was – he put himself in the middle of history and if the history didn’t live up to his expectations well he made it live up to his expectations. That means he is a legacy as the Library will know – whoever has a collection of Hurley from the Royal Geographic Society down the road at the NFSA is you absolutely know that Frank was writing for tonight.
He knew we’d be talking about him for years, decades to come. He certainly hoped he would be and he set the traps for all of us as biographers to fall into a kind of love hate of Frank. You cannot resist what he did and how he did it and he left so many questions and so many arguments and such a great body of work. It is a great body of work. Is he one of the great photographers? I don’t know. I’ll just say one thing as a documentary filmmaker, the guy made the very first documentary film. He made the first one before anyone had done it, no-one knew what to do.
A: From a standing start.
S: From a standing start with a camera that he’d had for a week down in -
A: Antarctica. Even before they got to Antarctica he was up in the mast, okay, he’s a young, agile, fit fellow but –
S: Making it up as he went and he got a 72 minute film.
A: - going through the Southern Ocean –
S: Home of the blizzard.
A: - I just can't imagine how you would do that.
S: So I can’t help but admire him for that alone.
G: Alasdair, last word to you, what’s the shape of the legacy?
A: I think - I totally agree with what Simon says but he’s still this enigma. I lived with him for three years, he tormented me.
G: So –
A: For three years and yet I have this – I’ll use the cliché, this love hate relationship with him. I could never quite – and okay, you’re never quite going to understand your subject and particularly when – well for instance Frank’s personal life was just –
G: I don’t think Mrs Hurley had much of a –
A: - in a fog and it sounds a bit sad and his daughters, Adelie and Toni, who were so generous with me, I just – I’ll always be grateful to them and acknowledge them, they were just wonderful but they used to say we never knew our father. Well he was always away and even sadly Frank’s granddaughter, Julie Burns, was going to be here tonight but is unwell and Julie very touchingly wrote to me after the book was published and she said I learnt so much about my grandfather that I never knew. That to me made the whole thing sort of worthwhile that I could place this person in the right context historically. There’d been previous biographies of Hurley and I don’t know how much time we have but this goes back – and this is personally for me but I’d love to tell this little story.
The biography of Hurley was the first biography I’d written, I’d written two or three books before that but I came to it with some trepidation and a sense of I’ve got to do this properly. There was an exhibition of his work at the State Library in Sydney and I knew the curator of this exhibition quite well, Stephen Martin, and he said well come along, the Hurley twins will be there, I’ll introduce you to them. So Julie, I met Toni and Adelie and these are two formidable women in their 80s by that stage and I thought – I was very respectful and very pleased to meet you and so on and so forth. Look, I’m looking forward to researching your father’s life and so on and I’d be honoured if I could come and meet you and interview you. Adelie who was the most forthright of the pair, she said to me oh another biography. I was a bit taken aback but they were wonderful, they lived up at Coffs Harbour together, they’d come together as twins are obviously -
S: In a caravan park.
A: In a caravan park -
S: Very happily.
A: - in their later years and they went travelling together and so on. But once I took them to lunch at the local yacht club and they were sort of my friends from then on and it was a fantastic relationship. I know I’m getting off the subject a bit but as I was saying he’s still an enigma. As Simon said he’s – as a photographer was he a brilliant photographer? I don’t know, he certainly – when he was good and when the composites worked they added this extra energy and artistic presence to them. But it’s more he’s the sum of all these parts, the adventure, the photography, the technical skill, the way he brought that altogether and it was a life of great vibrancy and incredible achievement.
G: Please thank very much Simon Nash and Alasdair McGregor.
S: Thank you.
F: Well thank you very much, Alasdair, Simon and Genevieve. I’m left with a whole lot of new images in my mind, one of the young man clutching the new film camera high up in the rigging in the Southern Ocean, not an image I had in my mind before. The other of course is thinking I have to say if anybody wants any images of clouds to pop into your own – it sounds as – we’ve got quite a lot that you could use or –
S: A great collection of clouds.
F: A great collection of clouds and of Mediterranean skies but I still feel as you both sort of suggested that yes, in a sense you can put together all of these composite images of Hurley as well but there’s still something kind of hiding in there. Perhaps it’s the little boat that’s gotten scratched out of the glass negative that maybe you’re still searching for.
Now after you finish your dessert I do encourage you to take another look at our Hurley exhibition and I think you will find yourself looking at these images in a new light. The curator of the exhibition, Rosalind Clarke, is with us tonight and I did want to thank Ros for being here tonight because it was actually really her last curating gig with us before those scoundrels over at the NMA poached her, a bit like Hurley. But actually we share our collections with our friends at the collecting institutions and we share our excellent staff too so Ros is at the museum now but has come back tonight and will be very happy to answer any questions that you have about the items on display and about perhaps some of her own decisions in selecting them. Alasdair and Simon are also happy to answer your questions and I'm quite sure that Alasdair will happily sign copies of his book in the bookshop right over there.
Now I hope you’ve all enjoyed your evening in company with this lovely conversation from our speakers and I hope meeting new and old friends around your tables. The evening isn’t over yet so please take your time having dessert, view the exhibition again and enjoy a bit more conversation. Thank you.
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