The Endurance gripped by the ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, 1915

Frank Hurley in the Antarctic

Robert W. Snyder

When frank hurley took this photograph in 1915, the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition was already in trouble.

For the glory of Great Britain and exploration, Ernest Shackleton had planned to sail to Antarctica and make the first crossing of the continent by foot. The sale of Hurley’s photographs and movies was expected to help pay for the venture.

A day away from their intended base the ice caught the Endurance. Through the dark Antarctic winter, the stranded ship drifted away from the land.

Hurley was on his second Antarctic trip. As the Endurance headed south, the cheerfully profane Australian had scrambled onto the yard arms—“a warrior with his camera,” a ship’s officer recalled, who “would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Once the Endurance was trapped, Hurley rigged up electric lights and showed slides to boost morale. He photographed the strange beauty of a marooned ship amid sprawling ice fields and developed film despite freezing temperatures that split his fingertips.

The ice crushed the ship like a toy. Hurley recorded the agony on film.
Shackleton assembled his 27 men and told them it was time to head home. To keep weight down, Hurley’s film, negatives and cameras would be left behind.

Hurley returned to the wrecked Endurance to salvage his negatives. Shackleton, mindful that the pictures would have commercial value, relented. While some 400 negatives were abandoned, Hurley took 120 with him, along with movie film, prints and a pocket camera with three rolls of film.

When the ice broke up, the men rowed to uninhabited Elephant Island. Shackleton announced a plan: with five men in a boat he would make for an island 800 miles away and find rescuers at a whaling station.

As Hurley snapped pictures, the men loaded a 221¼2 foot boat and set off. Seventeen days later, after weathering a storm that sank a 500-ton steamer, Shackleton landed on South Georgia Island. Further sailing was impossible. Shackleton and two men trekked 22 miles across uncharted mountains, crevasses and snowfields to safety. Then the men waiting behind them were recovered. Not one life was lost.

In London, Hurley’s photographs were featured in the December 5, 1916, Daily Mirror under the headline one of the most heroic rescues in history. Soon after he was in Flanders, taking gritty photographs of trench warfare but embellishing them with sunsets and shellbursts when he found reality insufficiently evocative.

Until his death in 1962, Hurley was a photographer. To the end he retained a sentimental, even Victorian, streak that surfaced in works such as Pearls and Savages: Adventures in the Air, On Land and Sea—in New Guinea and Cairns, the Tropical Wonderland.

Hurley’s photos from the Shackleton expedition were unsurpassed. The moment made the photographer. Stranded on the ice, his ship being crushed before his eyes, Hurley faced doom and turned it into art.

Robert W. Snyder is editor of Media Studies Journal.

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