Portrait courtesy of the ABC
1919 - 2010 | NSW | Photojournalist
Adelie Hurley, daughter of fellow Hall of Famer Frank Hurley, was Australia’s first female Press photographer and changed photojournalism in the post-World War II years by paving the way for other women in the male-dominated craft. Adelie started as a swimsuit model before switching to the other side of the camera and bagging hundreds of memorable shots for newspapers and magazines with a mixture of creativity, daring, mischievousness and skill - always in her trademark red lipstick. Such was her capacity to consistently bring back a great picture, she was known as “Front Page Hurley”.
Adelie Hurley’s photographic career, which spanned the years from 1938 until the 1960s, was one of groundbreaking achievements. She was one of Australia’s first photojournalists when the nomenclature was not used in Australia, one of only three female press photographers working in her time and arguably the first, and the sole female photographer at The Australian Women's Weekly.
Hurley was a pioneer and an iconoclast having to navigate her career in an era when society sidelined unorthodox women, and in an industry that was defined by gender discrimination.
The daughter of Frank Hurley, Australia’s celebrated Antarctic and war photographer, and Antoinette Theirault-Leighton, a French singer, Adelie and her twin sister, Toni, were born on 21 May 1919. Affectionately known as “Ads”, she was named after Adélie Land on the Antarctic continent, her father’s favourite place and described by Sir Douglas Mawson as the “windiest corner of the world.”
Frank Hurley was mostly absent for the first eight years of Adelie’s life. He became a more familiar but still an emotionally remote figure after his appointment as the pictorial editor of The Sun in Sydney. It was then he enlisted his children in the development of his luminous prints.
Toni remembered the routine: “We would sit on the stairs outside while he sat in his dark room. We would have a stop-watch and when the time was up, we had to call out to him. We were close to him that way, but we could never jump up on his lap and cuddle him”. At the age of eleven, Adelie displayed precocious artistry winning a school photography competition using her Box Brownie and printing them using the old bellows enlarger in the bathroom.
She conceded it was “not the pictures at home that stirred my interest but rather my sister's boyfriend's camera.” Alex Stewart, a press photographer, had lent Hurley his Graflex camera when she was 17, and she recalled “this is terrific, this is for me”. She promptly left school and enrolled in commercial art at the Sydney Technical College. But she was restless and withdrew from the course without graduating, observing it was “too narrow and too conforming”.
Despite her lineage, Hurley’s photographic career was never advanced by nepotism. Instead, her trajectory was unconventional. In 1938, she embarked on a modelling career appearing in Pix magazine and The Sun in Sydney. Intermittently, she worked as a freelance journalist for Pix. She also began to shoot pictures after submitting a photograph of her sister which won a Pix competition and lead to the commission of a four-page spread.
In 1939, she joined the Australian Associated Press. During the war, Hurley continued as a “cover girl” but her interest increasingly gravitated to working behind the camera, and she began to photograph more regularly for Pix and The Daily Mirror whose editor, Ezra Norton, appointed her as the newspaper’s first female photographer. Flip Byrnes, her niece, recalled Hurley’s creativity as she experimented with extension flash for different lighting effects.
In 1942, Hurley - described as “a familiar figure about Sydney in her slacks, carrying a camera in search of Press photographs” - became a tabloid target due to the demise of her first marriage for “desertion”. Later in the war, she moved to San Francisco, joining the legion of war brides after marrying Edward McGinty, an American serviceman. She continued to work for Pix as a freelance photographer in the US and became a “camera girl” in a San Francisco nightclub. In 1948, Hurley returned to Sydney and worked on a full-time basis for The Mirror’s opposition newspaper, The Sun.
The Sun, however, refused to employ her as a staff photographer. Ongoing staff positions for women press photographers were impossible to secure in Australia with news management disingenuously insisting that women could not be employed on a permanent basis because they had no female toilets available on the photographic floor of the building.
Hurley’s male colleagues were equally territorial, and on more than one occasion, she found that her camera gear was sabotaged. She later observed: “It was a great life, but a lonely one in newspapers. I had a lot of acquaintances, but not many friends. Being a press photographer suits my personality: I’ll go anywhere, anytime.”
Hurley’s body of work and nickname “Front Page” Hurley were a testament to this tenacity and resourcefulness. “I held my job, simply because I nearly always get my picture; I was sent to get.” she explained. “I never tried to excuse myself from a difficult assignment on the ground that I was a woman.”
In the early years of World War II and despite the Department of Information’s accreditation system and punitive censorship, Hurley stowed on board on an overland troop convoy disguised as a soldier and headed for Darwin. After being discovered and thrown off at Banka Banka station, 100 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, she hitchhiked to Darwin undeterred and photographed the troops before civilian evacuation.
These photographs appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s front page. Her images of bomb defusers during the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour garnered a by-line. So too did Hurley’s photographs of an opium raid by the Vice Squad in a Chinese laundry that resulted in another front page, this time in The Sunday Sun.
After leaving The Sun in 1950, she joined the staff at AM, a magazine edited by maverick Cyril Pearl, also editor of The Telegraph and Women’s Weekly. When the magazine closed three years later, Frank Packer employed her to work for the Australian Consolidated Press.
In 1956, Hurley gained a position at The Women’s Weekly where she remained for seven years, capturing Australian daily life, the outback and remote coastal regions, the Aboriginal community and taipan hunting. She was the first woman to photograph sacred sites in Arnhem Land and was sent on overseas assignments to Fiji, India and the USSR in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. These images, in vivid colour, reveal her prodigious skill as well as technological expertise.
But by the 1970s, Hurley had become disillusioned with press photography and with her third husband. She managed an island reef resort out of Bowen, Queensland. She also embarked on portrait painting, reflecting her rich artistic life.
In 1983, Hurley retired to Coffs Harbour joining her beloved and equally vivacious twin sister, Toni, and becoming involved in the town’s tourism promotion. The sisters became essential guardians of their father’s legacy, retracing his route during Shackleton's Endurance expedition. In 2010, Adelie Hurley died at the age of ninety.
Fay Anderson is a media historian and Associate Professor in the School of Film, Media and Journalism at Monash University.
Portrait of Adelie Hurley. Courtesy of the ABC
The three daughters of Frank Hurley: Adelie, Yvonne and Antoinette, the Hurley girlies. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia
in Pix, 7 August 1948. Courtesy of National Library of Australia and Tamson Pietsch
Goat Island series, in Pix, 10 May 1941. Courtesy of National Library of Australia and Tamson Pietsch
Russian scene, Australian Women's Weekly. 21 November 1962. Courtesy of Tamson Pietsch
In HMAS Melbourne's engine room. Courtesy of the Byrnes family
Sisters in Coffs Harbour, 1988. Courtesy of the Byrnes family
From a Women's Weekly story, 1982. Courtesy of the Byrnes family
1999 expedition to Antarctica, with Adelie at left. Courtesy of the Byrnes family
‘Hurley, Adelie (1919 - 2010)’, The Australian Women’s Register
‘Pioneer in female photojournalism: Adelie Hurley, 1919-2010’, Sydney Morning Herald, Flip Byrnes, 19 March 2010.
Australian Women Photographers 1840 - 1960, Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications, 1986.
‘Glamour girl with a camera’, The Age, Madeleine Hamilton, 22 March 2010
Adelie 'Front Page' Hurley, RN Earshot, 14 November 2017