Self-portrait c 1911, by Frank Hurley (1885-1962), gelatin silver photograph,
Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Purchased 2005,

Frank Hurley

1885-1962    |    NSW    |    Photographer

Hurley became Australia’s best-known front line photographer through both world wars of the 20th century. After capturing iconic images of the Mawson and Shackleton expeditions to the Antarctic from 1911, he became an official war photographer on the Western Front in 1917. Shocked by the carnage, he attempted to convey the impact of war by staging scenes and combining several images in a single print, leading war correspondent Charles Bean to accuse him of fakery. Between the wars he spent a year as the pictorial editor of the Sydney Sun and produced cinema documentaries on Papua New Guinea and Mawson’s 1927 Antarctic expedition before serving again as an official photographer in WWII. 

The jungles of New Guinea were as remote from the blizzards of Antarctica as they were from the slaughter on the Western Front in 1917, or Palestine in the final months of the war...

Alasdair McGregor, author of Frank Hurley: A photographer’s life 


Frank Hurley


In October 1922 Frank Hurley described taking off across the turbid expanse of the Gulf of Papua in a Curtis flying boat as the “wildest ride I have ever experienced”. Those two minutes, as his pilot Andrew Lang coaxed the flimsy machine aloft, had “no parallel” in all of Hurley’s 37 years. He confessed to being frightened to the marrow: some admission for a man who often stirred copious measures of danger into a heady brew of adventure, photography and sensational reportage.

Incredulous villagers sacrificed a pig to Hurley’s “canoe that could fly”, but with its fabric-covered wings rotting in the tropical sun, the aircraft was abandoned in favour of a more conventional, though hardly safer, conveyance. In search of headhunters, Hurley then made a fraught journey by clapped-out lugger to unexplored Lake Murray. Yet all was not simple swagger on this, his second expedition to Papua. While reporting in lurid detail for Sydney’s Sun, and appropriating exotic props for his next one-man travelling film show, Hurley produced a priceless first-contact photographic record of Stone Age peoples on the brink of irrevocable change.

The jungles of New Guinea were as remote from the blizzards of Antarctica as they were from the slaughter on the Western Front in 1917, or Palestine in the final months of the war, yet by the mid 1920s, the peripatetic Hurley had turned his physical courage, technical skill, showmanship and artistry to each of these remarkable regions or momentous events.

A working-class Sydney boy born in 1885, James Francis (Frank) Hurley is said to have bolted from the stultifying walls of inner-city Glebe Public School sometime around the age of twelve. He fetched up in the ironworks of industrial Lithgow, but lured and inspired by the bluffs and canyons of the nearby Blue Mountains, the city tearaway soon surrendered to the spell of photography. Intent on escaping a life of endless drudgery, his camera was to hold the key. From messenger boy to excited amateur, then professional, Hurley would floridly acknowledge photography as “unlocking the golden door of adventure”.

Frank Hurley’s account of his formative years was romanticised at the very least. But whatever the truth, in late 1911 the young photographer’s first big break came as he ploughed south through the Southern Ocean from Hobart, bound for the unmapped coasts of Antarctica. Just weeks before, and armed with a portfolio of daredevil images – close-ups of speeding locomotives among them – Hurley had cajoled Dr Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, into hiring him as the expedition’s official photographer and cinematographer. Mawson’s leap of faith proved fortuitous. The struggles of Hurley’s comrades against the terrifying Antarctic blizzards became the leitmotif of a remarkable ‘documentary’ record – years before the term was coined.

Sometime in 1913, Hurley’s silent cine footage came to the notice of Sir Ernest Shackleton, then organising the most ambitious – and craziest, as Mawson and others thought – polar expedition of the age. Beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen, and then Scott, Shackleton’s overweening ambition now drove him to attempt a crossing of the Antarctic continent from coast to coast. Hurley brushed Mawson’s misgivings aside and joined Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition with alacrity; but by early 1915, he and his 27 shipmates found themselves in the early rounds of mortal combat with nature. The death throes of their ship Endurance; the expedition’s helpless drift on the frozen Weddell Sea; their escape to Elephant Island; and their ultimate dramatic rescue, would all become the stuff of exploration legend through the incisive focus of Hurley’s lens. A century on, Shackleton’s enduring fame is inseparable from Hurley’s stirring visual record.

In September 1916, the expedition emerged from its frozen chrysalis to a world of mass murder. Like most, Hurley willingly fell into line, but the blow to his soul would soon prove profound. In London in 1917, he and fellow polar explorer, Hubert Wilkins, were co-opted as photographers in a newly formed Australian War Records Section. Under the direction of official war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean, Hurley’s brief was to record the fighting for “propaganda purposes”. Confronted with the horrors and scale of the conflict, Hurley created composite tableaux, often drawing on several photographic negatives to heighten the drama. It was a trick as old as photography itself, yet such a departure from the literal truth was anathema to Bean. The two clashed bitterly. Sensing a defection to the equivalent Canadian outfit, Bean had his troublesome photographer bundled off to Palestine where Hurley witnessed the rout of the Turks and a war far more to his liking. Hurley rode with the Australian Light Horse troopers and fell to the romance and history of the Middle East, a region to which he would return in 1940.

In the intervening years, marriage and four children did nothing to dampen Hurley’s wanderlust. Apart from the Papuan expeditions, an attempt at the first flight from Australia to England, and a further Antarctic expedition with Mawson, Hurley produced his own feature films shot on location in the Torres Strait and Dutch New Guinea, toured and lectured in North America and Britain, and almost cracked Hollywood. The Great Depression saw him uncharacteristically in the employ of others, where, as chief cameraman for Cinesound, he worked on such escapist classics as the Squatter’s Daughter and Strike Me Lucky.

When war again broke out, Hurley enthusiastically offered his services but was only begrudgingly given control of the Department of Information’s Cairo-based film unit. Hurley was now in his mid-60s and fixed in his methods. He was soon at odds with a new generation – the so-called photojournalists in Damien Parer and George Silk – for whom gritty realism mattered above photographic perfection. With Australia directly threatened in 1942, Parer and Silk were withdrawn from North Africa, while Hurley was left to struggle on alone, increasingly isolated and unappreciated. When his superiors back home had the temerity to criticise his single-handed coverage of the Battle of El Alamein, Hurley defected to the British Ministry of Information. He spent the remainder of the war making propaganda films, all the while relishing the chance to travel throughout the Middle East that he loved.

Hurley finally returned to Australia in 1946, and with his energies undiminished by age or war turned his attentions to his own country. For the next 15 years he crisscrossed Australia many times, gathering material for postcards, calendars, and numerous illustrated books. He became a virtual one-man publishing phenomenon; and for the first time in his life, Hurley was comfortably off. His quiet death at home in Sydney in early 1962 seems at odds with such a remarkable and adventurous life frequently lived in extremis.

Alasdair McGregor is a writer, painter and lecturer based in Sydney. His books include Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin; Antarctica: That Sweep of Savage Splendor; and A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway. His biography of Hurley was inspired by several expeditions of his own to Antarctica.

No title (Supporting troops of the First Australia Division walking on a duckboard track), 1917. By Frank Hurley. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.


Frank Hurley photographing under the bows of the 'Endurance', 1915 with the Prestwich No. 5 CineCamera, 1901. Photo by Hurley. Courtesy of State Library of NSW.


Self-portrait, 1918. 

A gathering inside a Kau longhouse, Papua New Guinea, by Frank Hurley. From the collection of the Australian Museum


Frank Hurley, 1900, photographer unknown. Courtesy of University of Queensland.




Further information


Frank Hurley: A photographer’s life, Alasdair McGregor, Penguin/Viking, 2009.


Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History, Simon Nasht and Anna Cater, Mitra Films, 2004.