Adjournment speech - Mr Frank Hurley
Senator John Faulkner
22 March 2012
Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (19:50): This year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Frank Hurley—photographer, filmmaker, explorer. Hurley was at the centre of many of the 20th century's great events—exploration in Antarctica and New Guinea and both world wars. His art would help tell Australia's story, a story about a young nation's optimism and emerging self-awareness. Hurley's lens shaped much of what we understand about those events and that era. Many of the images in our mind's eye are Hurley's images. We should remember his remarkable achievements. James Francis Hurley was born in 1885 in Sydney's working-class Glebe. Early on, he displayed an adventurous streak, running away from home at the age of 13 by stowing away on a train bound for Lithgow. Returning home two years later, he was encouraged by a workmate to try his hand at photography. He was immediately captivated, saying that in photography:
I knew I had found my real work, and a key, could I but become its master, that would perhaps unlock the portals of the undiscovered world.
Hurley would spend much of the rest of his life exploring the undiscovered world. He initially made a name for himself as a member of two Antarctic expeditions—the first in 1911 with Sir Douglas Mawson when he, aged just 26, captured some of the first images of the frozen southern continent. This expedition would serve as a prelude to his second visit as part of Shackleton's bid to traverse Antarctica. Hurley records the heroic efforts and miraculous survival of Shackleton's party, capturing the compelling drama of man pitted against a harsh and indifferent environment. His pictures of the helpless Endeavour being devoured by the winter's pack ice are haunting still—a graphic visual image of powerlessness in the face of immense forces of nature.
Hurley would go on to serve as the official photographer with the Australian Imperial Forces during World War I. His images explore the ferocity, futility and brutality of war: in Palestine, Ypres and desolate French forests decimated by artillery. It is a tribute to the artist that from these images we also get a sense of the humanity and camaraderie that existed amidst the devastation. After the war Hurley would go on to explore the upper reaches of the Fly River in New Guinea and document Moir and Owen's failed attempt in 1928 to break the aviation record from Sydney to England. He would also accompany Mawson on two further expeditions to the Antarctic, although he was disappointed by the experience, lamenting that 'the days of romantic Polar exploration are gone'.
Between the wars Hurley took a job with Cinesound Studios where he worked on a number of films, including in 1933 The Squatter's Daughter, in 1935 Grandad Rudd and in 1932 Symphony in Steel, which is a tribute to Sydney's Harbour Bridge. But then, as war again engulfed Europe, Hurley would embark on one last adventure, serving in the Middle East and covering such events as Operation Compass, the siege of Tobruk and Montgomery's counter-offensive at El Alamein. Reflecting on his time as a war photographer, he would write:
It is a vocation that constantly calls for a life stake and one must be prepared to play with chance perhaps even more than in most branches of the services.
On returning home Hurley entered the final phase of his artistic life where he became, in the words of one critic, 'the face of scenic photography'. He would traverse the country and, through his books, present Australia to Australians. Hurley's Australia is place of opportunity and optimism and, to be fair, a certain cautious insularity too. As John Thompson, who has written much about Frank Hurley, argues in critiquing this period of Hurley's work:
… [the] man who had once travelled the world [was] to give Australians the means for understanding and appreciating their own country. He did so in terms of the cultural limitations and social prejudices of the day. Hurley's vision was clear [and] uncomplicated … It was not a vision that encompassed plurality, diversity or complexity.
Through these images postwar Australia saw itself. To his critics and admirers alike, Hurley was a showman, raconteur and storyteller. He told stories not only of high adventure and national pride, of humanity's capacity to overcome, but also of its faculty for cruelty and its insignificance when compared to nature's elements. In summing up his life Hurley said:
I have lived a life that suited me best. I took risks and never regretted them. If I could start again, I would do everything the same.
We should be thankful for the risks that Frank Hurley took and grateful for the contribution he made to the nation's cultural life.