Representation, Composites and Frank Hurley

“…had  a long argument with Hurley who wants to be able to make ‘composite’ pictures for his exhibition” *

CEW Bean

Introduction

I love the story of Frank Hurley (1885-1962).

He left school at 12 and escaped the drudgery of a working class life at the turn of the century through a passion for photography and his gift of the gab. He sailed to Antarctica with Mawson and Shackleton, documented both world wars and travelled extensively in Australia and exotic, rarely visited countries. He was once a household name and his iconic images would be recognised, even if his name has been forgotten, by recent generations of Australians.

For the uninitiated a brief, incomplete overview of his life before I launch into my theme for this post:

  • 1911-14 – Photographer for Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition
  • 1914-16 – Photographer for Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition
  • 1917-18 – World War 1 photographer and Captain in the Australian Imperial Forces
  • 1921-23 – Expeditions to Papua New Guinea
  • 1929-31 – Official photographer for Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic Research Expedition
  • 1939-45 – World War 2 photographer in the Australian Forces.
  • Post 1946

Representation and Truth

Hurley made composite photographs from about about 1905. He learnt how to superimpose images, from two or more negatives, into one photograph while working making postcards in Sydney. You can view many of them here. He would later take the skills learned producing tourist memorabilia to the Western Front. His most famous, and largest, ‘composite photomural’ was first exhibited in London (1918) under the title of ‘The Raid’:

CEW Bean was fiercely opposed to ‘faked’ images of warfare. Hurley felt, after experiencing the risks of war, that getting war pictures ‘of striking interest and sensation’ is virtually impossible in combat with the available equipment. Bean wanted an accurate record of the places Australians fought before the battlefield landscape changed. Hubert Wilkins was the other official Australian war photographer and he tended to fill this role. Hurley felt that the horror of the Western Front needed to be represented and only embellishment of the kind that composites permitted would allow the reality of the scale and suffering to be communicated.* There is an insightful analysis of the wider context of Bean’s dislike of composites (Hurley’s ‘misrepresentation’ and ‘showmanship’) here if you would like to explore this issue further.

The Bean/Hurley disagreement about the nature of representation** has been repeated many times since and I often see these kinds of discussions at forums. Of course, Adobe Photoshop has made the process Hurley pioneered much easier and more sophisticated. There is a school of thought that perceives an integrity in taking a shot perfectly captured, in-camera, without post-processing. Somehow this is thought to be a more authentic and truthful representation. The mirror held to reality.

How successful any representation is depends on a range of contextual factors, including the response of the person consuming the photograph, as much as the original photographer’s intention and the impact of chance. Meaning is often illusive, even with a photo not ‘manipulated’ in anyway through post-production. Hurley was attempting to represent the battlefield – unlike these quite famous manipulations that purported to be ‘real’. Roland Barthes probably sums these manipulations up best in Camera Lucida when he calls photography:

“…a new form of hallucination…a mad image chafed by reality.”

Conclusion

I have been revisiting Hurley’s story quite regularly for many years and keep finding the man anew as I develop new interests. Originally, it was his WWI photography that fascinated. Back in 2004 I attended the launch of a documentary about his life and listened to one of his twin daughters talk about her father and discovered more about his travels in the less icy regions of our world, including Papua New Guinea. Hurley’s personal life was hardly exemplary (he was never home) but his adventuring was without peer. His daughter marvelled at how Hurley was able to fit many lifetimes into his 76 years with his boundless, restless energy.

Frank Hurley from Michael McMenomy on Vimeo.

I am keenly awaiting the arrival of The Diaries of Frank Hurley 1912-41 and can highly recommend, Frank Hurley – A Photographer’s Life by Alasdair McGregor* (which I have used as a source of quotes and facts for this post) if you want to learn more about this extraordinary photographer’s life and images. Frank Hurley would have loved our contemporary age. Blogging, Facebook, Photoshop and HDR imagery would have come very naturally to him.


cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by Recuerdos de Pandora


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by Rossco ( Image Focus Australia )

Do you also find Hurley’s photography inspirational?

Have you anything to add about composites or representation?

** Roger Scruton argued that photography is not representation. I think one can safely disagree.

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DISCLAIMER

The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

1 Comment

  1. Charmaine:

    I am currently studying Hurley and his photographs in a university history subject, Australian popular culture. He was truly, one of a kind.

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