Frank Hurley’s lifetime of awe-inspiring adventure photography began with the two ingredients necessary for any good adventure photographer, an overwhelming desire for travel and an impulse for putting himself in dangerous situations. Though these were merely foundations, throughout his career he pioneered all the attributes required for the modern adventure photographer and his collection has become an immortalised inspiration.
Hurley undertook two Antarctic expeditions spanning 4 years, extensive travels around Australia, Torres Strait and New Guinea as well as covering both World Wars across Europe and Middle East. Throughout his career Hurley developed his ability as a storyteller, aided no doubt by being part of the epic stories that unfolded during his adventures.
He was always looking for ways to portray the drama of his adventures and even embraced manipulating his photos to achieve a desired effect. By combining two or more negatives to make an image, his composite prints would show that photography was far more than mere documentation but evocative art used to challenge the viewer.
Before the term documentary had even been coined, Hurley was making them. Documenting human experience that no one had seen before, people interacting with nature at it’s most extreme and making up the narrative as he went along. He seemed determined to make the landscapes and volatility of the weather subjects for films. Filming with frozen fingers in blizzards so strong he was even lifted with his tripod and dropped meters away.
As with today’s adventure photographer, preoccupation with protecting his images was one of Hurley strengths. He soldered his glass negatives shut and was even found retrieving them from 3 feet below the icy waters of Antarctica as The Endurance was sinking.
He engaged in aerial photography by means of a floatplane and understood the magic of shooting from the air, a practice that has become so prevalent with todays adventure photographers through the use of drones and helicopters.
It’s interesting to imagine the distinctions between the early 1900’s adventure photographer and todays. One could argue that the very factors that made Hurley’s feats so impressive, the cumbersome equipment and the difficulty of travel were also advantages to Hurley in his success as an adventure photographer.
The camera Hurley used on his Antarctic expeditions was a large, heavy wooden box and the negatives were a glass plates encased more wooden boxes. He would often lug more than 40 lbs. of equipment, though this did not deter him from exploring the most interesting and challenging angles. Despite the technological disadvantages, the inaccessibility of photography to the general public meant less competition and securing an audience a little easier than in today’s flooded market of photographers.
Hurley was also lucky to have his career coincide with an era of extreme adventure. He had the advantage of unexplored corners of the world with true wilderness and hero explorers undertaking their discovery. Having genuine raw adventure stories to tell and never before seen landscapes of unimaginable magnificence to capture and bring back to the public.
Frank Hurley continued his travels and taking photographs throughout his entire life. He understood the power of photography and let his images tell the exciting narrative of adventuring through alien landscapes, the ultimate trailer blazer for the modern adventure photographer.