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Frank Hurley’s Antarctic

Near Enough is not Good Enough

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Frank Hurley (1885-1962) was an Australian photographer. This short note aims to show some of his beautiful work primarily from Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition between 1914-1917, and to explore how he managed to make such emotive and exceptional images, as well as the immense challenges he faced and how he might have overcome these. This isn’t an attempt to review his life or work more broadly. I’ve used a number of quotes from relevant diaries; these might break the flow of the article a little, but they are as close as we can get to Hurley now, and they give a feel for the ‘spirit of the times’ and so I think they are worth using.

Michael Stirling-Aird



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  • steveschnabel

    A beautifully written tribute to a remarkable photographer and his work in the Antarctica. I picked up a copy of “South with Endurance” a couple of years ago – the reproductions are exceptional and it is by far the book I revisit the most. Highly recommended.

  • rhinog

    A great article. I first came across Frank Hurley’s photographs in history as my history teacher ahd a thing for Shacklton (this was before the national curriculum) and the South with Endurance should be on everyone shelf. It is mine and I think that the power of Hurley’s photographs is one of the main reasons why black and white is my first choice for my own photography.

  • petebryan

    Great article, and for those who have not read South with Endurance, it is the most astonishing account of survival against all the odds; testament to Shakleton’s leadership, albeit it might be argued mixed with his recklessness in getting into that in the first place. Just when you think it can’t get any worse for them, it does. And again. And again. Treat yourself for Christmas. Oh, and Hurley’s pics are pretty good also….

  • Thanks for your comments, and Pete – you raise a great point about whether Shackleton’s leadership can be questioned having got them stuck in the ice in the first place. His original advertisement to attract the right crew was very clear that if they arrived too late and winter had set in, they would spend it on the boat in the ice. From reading various materials, my understanding is that they became trapped quite quickly, and that wasn’t a problem as such (indeed they expected that this might happen), however they were unfortunate that they ended up in such a pressure zone. I suppose the context is one of exploration, discovery, and a degree of risk taking. Regards, Michael

  • Yes, I saw ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’ exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, and was struck by both the power of the images and the conditions endured. If you do a search, you will find a book by the same name.

  • Adam Pierzchala

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, the pictures are wonderful. What really amazed me is that the photographer seems to be using his tripod while high up on the rigging! There’s dedication to the art of ‘getting it right in the camera’!

  • Hi Adam

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. I chose that picture of Hurley because I think it shows how dedicated he was! Michael

  • LShepherd

    A super article, Michael – I had this earmarked to read when first posted it but went away soon after, hence a rather delayed response! I’ve long been a fan of Hurley’s amazing Shackleton photographs – even without knowing the amazing story behind them, they stand in their own right as wonderful images. I had not seen the Cape Denison image from his earlier trip though – I agree with you, it’s an incredibly powerful photograph – what incredible dedication to create work like that!

    I saw what I think must have been the same Hurley/Ponting exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London earlier this year. For some reason I had not really been aware of Ponting’s work until this time and have to say I was even more moved by his work. Perhaps I was influenced by the rather different outcome to the trip he documented, but I’m not sure it was just that – I think I found them even more hauntingly beautiful.

    Most powerful of all, though, were the final set of images taken by Scott’s team – taught to use the camera by Ponting, for their final assault on the Pole. Seeing the look of resignation on their faces whilst listening to extracts from Scott’s diaries was almost unbearable. Hard to imagine that it then took another year or more for the tragic news to get back to their families…

    Anyway, thank you for such an enlightening article – very interesting to hear about Hurley’s appreciation of Ponting and vice-versa. Two incredible photographers!

    • Thanks LShepherd – I’d love to see more of Ponting’s prints – from what I’ve seen so far I’m not surprised by your comments. Time for some research (and perhaps an article) on Ponting! Michael

      • LShepherd

        Great idea, Michael – a follow up on Ponting would be super! After reading Paul Moon’s excellent write-up on the Hockney exhibition (which I saw the day before Hurley/Ponting) I realised I might have missed a trick and should have taken some notes at the Queen’s Gallery…
        So delighted to be able to read your piece here and look forward to one on Ponting soon ;-)
        Lizzie

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