Ernest Shackleton decided that he wanted a professional photographer with him on the grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Exhibition which left England in 1914, receiving the message that war had broken out shortly after steaming out of port. He chose Frank Hurley, a young Australian. Hurley had a great commitment to displaying the truth, was bang up to the minute with photographic technology and enough creative ambition to fuel a rocket. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said of him: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” The Royal Geographic Society has mounted a fascinating exhibition of his work, entitled Enduring Eye, to celebrate the centenary of one of the most famous stories of Antarctica’s Heroic Age.
Hurley took with him a lot of stuff. Cameras, tripods, films, glass plates, developing materials. Loads and loads of kit. Shackleton was enthusiastic: he knew photography was key to economic success. He could not have foreseen the poignancy of the photos Hurley saved and their longevity. Afterwards, in the longed for safety of Europe in the impossible madness of war, Hurley made a film, ‘South’, about everything that happened to the mission. At the end he says that the tale of heroism will last as long as Empire’; it has long outlasted that notion, but will last while there is an Antarctic ice shelf to capture our dreams.
Overall Hurley spent four years of his long-life in the Antarctic. After returning from the Endurance expedition in 2016 he went to work with the Australian troops at the Western Front. They christened him the 'mad photographer' for the risks he took to record what was happening. He mad himself unpopular with the authorities but captured the hell of the trenches.
The Endurance was a three-masted barquentine 44 meters long (so 12m less than Europa. Shackleton’s plan was to drop off the expedition as far south in the Weddell Sea as they could get and trek across the continent to meet the Aurora. The Weddell Sea, to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula ices up fast in the Autumn and it was key to get in and out in time. Endurance did not escape, becoming wedged upright in January, within sight of land about 150km away. On 15 February, Shackleton’s brithday, they acknowledged they were trapped. The exhibition brings home the disappointment as the ship drifted north, away from their destination. Through the long dark winter they exercised the dogs, dredged plankton through holes, kept the ship clean and listened to the hull creak and shake from ice pressure. Hurley took the stunning picture below of the ridges still encasing Endurance. He set 20 different flashes, fired electrically, to do so and nearly got lost himself when the light nearly blinded him.
The sun returned in August and with it their hopes of escape. No land was in sight. Hurley recorded the challenges of developing his plates in the extreme cold and how much the skin around his fingernails cracked and bled from the effort and immersion in chemicals.
In September a lead opened up in the floe and spirits rose high. The ship, which had been kept like a shore-station for months was returned to readiness for sea. On 15 October she broke free and floated. It was only a matter of hours before disaster struck. The ice closed in again, this time for good. Endurance was squeezed up and keeled over, the pressure coming on her engineroom where the hull was most vulnerable and before long it gave way. After so many months and surviving an Antarctic winter, she was fatally injured. The crew scrambled ashore, believing it would be moments before she sank, but in fact it was days. Large ringers of ice extended into the hull, keeping her afloat. More materiel was rescued, the dogs sliding down the hull in sails.
Hurley’s film captures the moment at which her mast cracked and fell, heartbreaking to watch today it must have been terrifying to the men looking on from an icefloe adrift in the summer sea. The delay enabled them to rescue the three lifeboats but not all Hurley’s plates could be taken, for they weighed a lot. He deliberately smashed them inside the hull so he could not be tempted to risk his own and others’ lives for their rescue.
On 25 October, Endurance sank. Shackleton tried to get the expedition 200 miles west to land, hauling the lifeboats, but had to concede defeat. In early November Ocean Camp was established, a base on a thick old floe which was drifting north. Despite continuing efforts sometimes in sight of land, they could not get free of ice until the floe itself began to break up.
Given the choice between seeking land to north and west and heading back into the ice for another Antarctic winter, they took to the sea. They were afloat for five hellish nights before reaching uninhabited Elephant Island. No-one would ever look for them there, but Hurley records their joy at being back on solid land at last, and the first hot drink after the sea voyage.
Hurley stayed at Elephant Island with most of the crew till Shackleton came back in the Chilean steam Yelcho. (The Admiralty had professed themselves unable to help.) He recorded the launch of the 22ft long James Caird the open boat which six men sailed to South Georgia in one of the greatest feats of seamanship ever known. This boat is in the Falmouth Maritime Museum. If you ever get the chance to visit be awed by the thought of 17 days in this cockleshell in the Southern Ocean and the skill with which Frank Worsley navigated to landfall on the tiny dot of South Georgia.
After the high-risk rescue mission departed, the 21 remaining men hunkered down in a hut made out of the remaining two boats. Hurley only had three rolls of film left so he did not take many pictures during the four months of waiting. He managed to snatch up his camera, though, for the moment of joy when the Boss reappeared.
So much has been written by and about Shackleton, and Hurley too. The RGS exhibition is a great introduction or reminder of the feat of survival Shackleton master-minded. Hurley was a wonderful photographer. With bulky, slow equipment he took these detailed and eloquent photographs, capturing the harshness and misery of the ship, the dogs and crew. Many of these pictures were developed on the ship as she was trapped in the ice. He deserves his title as one of the great documentary photographers of all time.