Frank Hurley – a master of light


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Here is an interview between James Clarke of Mullumbimby High School and Simon Nasht, director of Frank Hurley: the man who made history. This is from a presentation, Discovering Frank Hurley: the man who made history given at the ETA’s Countdown 2015 conference, and was briefly discussed in an earlier post. Any errors remain my responsibility as this transcript is based on an approximation of questions and response from my handwritten notes.

Looking at discovery, what drew you to this subject?

Examples from Greek writers show us that history has typically been recorded by people who were not present, or if present, their recollections are highly moderated. The camera was extremely influential in Hurley’s perception of reality. We may ask ourselves ‘is the image real?’ but could equally consider ‘does it matter?’

Hurley was a man constantly discovering from the age of 21 – although married for 42 years, he was rarely home.

The term ‘made’ was specifically chosen for the title as Hurley, the filmmaker, was actively engaged in creating representations of history.

The notion that ‘history is written by the victors’ is reflected in the ideas of empire from early in the documentary.

Hurley found the idea of metaphysics [branch of philosophy dealing with concepts of being, knowing, identity, time and space. Two significant strands: Plato suggested that what exists lies beyond experience; Kant: objects of experience constitute the only reality] intriguing, for example, compare the commemoration of ANZAC in 2015, with Hurley’s experience of 4 months in Passchendaele. As an artist, the experience is venerated – Hurley understood the aesthetic and created iconography of empirical adventure.

Shackleton’s expedition was a ‘massive fail’ and, but for Hurley’s photographs and images, would have been totally forgotten.

Why did you choose to use juxtaposition to highlight this ‘glorious failure’?

The movement between then and now – the 1920s and modern day – was created by choosing an actor who spoke with a similar voice to Hurley himself.

(played film extract with split screen of rolling seas from bow of ship “… even today, retracing …”)

Framing the whole movement between the past and present, what difficulties did you encounter, and differences in filming?

To re-create Hurley’s experiences, Nasht deliberately chose to authentically re-create the voyage. The first trip was cancelled due to notoriously difficult weather. Landing on Macquarie Island is like relying on ‘pot luck’ – limited places for landing. Mawson’s hut was established in a windy location – windiest location on earth! – that experiences maybe one or two weeks of fine weather each year. Unknowingly, located in a place of katabatic winds.

Hurley was a pioneer of the documentary form.

Indeed, even though Nanook of the North, made in 1922, is credited with being the first full-length documentary, Hurley made a full ‘three roller’ film in 1912. Hurley invented the whole grammar of juxtaposition and heroic narrative, effectively using framing and tracking techniques.

(film extract shown – down to Commonwealth Bay “… odyssey for the Empire”) ‘Argonauts of the South’ is the title of a published book written by Hurley.

 Hurley left school at the age of 12 or 14 years and was self taught through reading. He wrote copious diaries, many of which are readily available online. His writing style is very ‘readable’.

Comment on Hurley’s use of language.

Grew up in working class Forest Lodge, compared to the university education of many adventurers of the time. He worked at Lithgow as a fitter and turner and was very ‘good with his hands’. Shackleton found him a useful member of the expedition, but was wary of his ‘forceful personality’ and made sure he shared another tent, rather than becoming a rival in the event of a tense situation.

There is a strong element of the hero’s journey and the notion of the outsider in Hurley’s work. Did Hurley think he was a visionary?

In some sense, he was at ‘the right place with the right mind’ to take advantage of a situation. He was a perfectionist in the darkroom – ‘near enough is never good enough’ – and would smash less than perfect plates. He was very driven, and was himself an outsider through his lack of formal education and modest beginnings. He was actively and consciously very commercially driven – he wanted to make his fortune.

(played film extract of two daughters) Very interesting perceptions of their father …

‘Hurley was a fascinating father’ who didn’t discover himself, but was a loner, deliberately kept himself separate. He was a practical joker and kept many amused during the cold, but changed after the three man expedition to the south magnetic pole. After experiencing a very desperate situation, which at the same time saw Mawson lose two men had a lasting impact. After this, Hurley became an absolute loner and chose to avoid emotional connections that could lead to loss. Hurley was known for not having great friends or being convivial – quite unusual for the time.

Did Hurley break the traditional narrative style?

Godard said: every story has a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Nowadays, we are much more accepting of different narrative styles, but the traditional way is still a good way to tell a story. So this narrative has a beginning: quest shared with us, the viewer

a middle: controversy, trials, lack of acceptance, loss of focus

an end: return and success

The documentary reveals a life that almost set out to live a classic mythology.

It is a very masculine world. Did you deliberately set out to balance this with contemporary audiences by using a female narrator? Is that the reason for including Hurley’s daughters?

It is valuable to be interrogated. Yes, we definitely chose to use a female voice as we were very conscious of the ‘blokey’ story. The daughters give a personal reflection of Hurley who some may see as ‘such an unreliable narrator’. However, they lived side by side in caravans on the mid north coast and every now and then, another Hurley print would turn up at auction to fund their lifestyle. One daughter was a photographer, but ‘dad never taught me anything’.

Was he a giant or a conjuror?

In WWI, we really see his work (played clip ‘ even in colour, there was a gulf between what he saw and the event’ – Ian Affleck comments ‘make photographs’) these manipulations led to bitter conflict.

Hurley’s composite image of the front line was only shown in London – it was a giant tableaux, the size of a big screen. Hurley gave the audience a sense of what he felt was going on … Is that accurate or honourbale? Hurley wouldn’t even have thought of the moral question: is this right or wrong?

He was working in a tent one kilometre from the front line and was a great technician. If even one speck of dust was lodged on the glass plate, an image could be ruined. These days, almost every published image is photshopped or altered in some way – cropping, resizing – you might consider that Hurley was in the avant guarde.

How important is the idea of manipulation?

The documentary form is constantly being reinvented – it is itself a creative depiction of reality. Of course film moderates and mediates reality, and Nasht acknowledges his own version of ‘a’ truth. It is interesting to consider how he got there. It is a matter of personal opinion: compare Bean and Hurley – two approaches to reality.

Isn’t photoshopping manipulation?

Of course: zoom, crop, highlight … the War Memorial don’t recognize their manipulation in representing history and historical moments.

It is indeed a very modern spectacle.

It is deliberately provocative: what’s real? Keep the importance of Hurley’s work separate from questions of right or wrong. Hurley only had a few days between Shackleton’s expedition and his time on the western front. It was a grim realization: he had experienced a situation where everything was done to keep men alive in a hostile environment to then witness hundreds of thousands of men being killed for no apparent gain. These days, the reporting of war is highly controlled and censored by governments – the modern sensibility is a very different story.

Tell us about New Guinea.    [view extracts from Pearls and Savages courtesy of Australian Screen]

(played clip ‘… new frontier’ split screen)

Hurley was the first to encounter this tribe, but not for research, it was to promote Hurley.

This was really controversial. Did you discover any particular issues?

It was a huge commercial enterprise, largely funded by Mark Foy, Sydney retailer, with press and radio deals. Very much projected as ‘white man triumphs over savages’ in a similar vein to the American Pearls and Savages, although this was very much over the top.

There was an exchange of trinkets for favours, but even then this was not an acceptable situation and complaints went to the prime minister’s office.

This highland region remains untamed, yet the coloniser has actually become the conservationist as this film is a record of tribal life at that time.

In revisiting the New Guinea highlands, Nasht showed the villagers a copy of the original footage, and it is the best record of what was actually there at the time, of what has been lost. He was able to identify and film in literally the same spot as Hurley – the same huge, cut log is still there which Nasht sat on.

Post WW2, Hurley depicted an Australia of another time.

It is the story of ‘Menzian’ Australia after 1949. Hurley created an annual calendar which was found in almost every Australian home, with landscapes being favoured over people. Thee were images of the heroic Australia, that were also used as postcards to entice immigrants to Australia. Hurley also produced picture books depicting a golden land, unbounded where no poor or indigenous exisited. This was a highly constructed version of Australia, but it could only succeed if there was enough truth – a kernel of truth in the images.

So Hurley was the ultimate showman, needing to keep making money. Do you need to be a showman today?

If you want to be noticed as a film maker, you almost have to do a ‘dog and pony show’. Television documentaries nearly have to be a mini story – the first few minutes must gain the viewer’s attention. The established form is to show a coda or preamble, the real story begins. When The Man Who Made History was first shown on the ABC, it was a huge success, although the making was a long, hard slog.

‘A picture is not the same to a photographer holding a camera, as to an artist holding a brush … you are its intellect’

It was Hurley’s need to be appreciated as an artist, not as a technician. This started with postcards …

He kept diaries.

Hurley documented everything in very clear handwriting. Florid descriptions, but engagingly written – he had time to do this as he was not ‘wasting’ time at the servicemen’s bar, or making friends.

Hurley reflecting back: I’d do it exactly the same.

Not great poetry, but it captures the man in a rare self-referential way.


In response to various questions from the audience Nasht replied:

  • Hope the film is inspiring for the younger generation, but they are not necessarily the intended audience
  • Began making the film in 2003 after an explosion of interest in Shackleton, for example Imax film and many books. Nasht thought: hang on, we only know about the Shackleton expedition because of Hurley, so this film is to address Shackleton mania
  • Look for a biography with conflict of point of tension, a complex morality for a narrative
  • Has taught documentary making and its history, and is very aware of this form and craft
  • Next project is a collaboration with John Howard on the biography of Menzies
  • John Noble was the voice over who they chose for his approximation of Hurley’s actual voice. Hurley had an authoritative voice: 1962 intro to one of his works is the only existing audio recording of Hurley.
  • Had to choose how to interpret the diary eg. ‘this bloody war’ as opposed to ‘bloody’ as descriptive – acknowledgeds that this is interpretive
  • Hurley worked with Parer in WW2, but they didn’t get along – they were very different breeds. Hurley favoured the use of a tripod and chose to construct his shots, whereas Parer favoured a small camera on his shoulder, working fast.
  • This pictorial style went out of style during the 1950s, but coming back into favour inherent aesthetic beauty where you can feel the weight of the photograph. Of this style, Hurley was the great – he stayed with his strengths, such as a clear light contrast; he was a master of light and black and white images dominate because of this use of contrast.
  • Hurley: the man who made history has many accessible ideas, many entry points for students to consider important issues, and not necessarily intellectual issues.

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