Recently I read a book about Ernest Shackelton’s Endurance journey to Antarctica, which started out as the first expedition planned to cross the entire continent, but wound up instead trapped in pack ice when barely starting out. After spending nearly a year drifting in a giant circle with the tide in the Weddell Sea, in a fair amount of tense comfort, the boat was finally crushed and abandoned, and finally sank. Suddenly the crew was trapped on rugged and melting pack ice, drifting around the middle of a sea with only lifeboats in case the ice melted in the summer, and hardly any supplies. The story of how Shackelton managed to save every man and get them back to land, and rescue, is studied by adventurers and business managers alike because of the leadership he showed in the face of such potential devastation.
The story of the official photographer of the mission, Frank Hurley, is also a story worth knowing. When the ship
was crushed, and everyone had to judiciously decide what they were willing to carry across the ice, Hurley took considerable risks to rescue some of his exposures that he had taken before the sinking, pretty much minutes before the boat went down, and those images are part of what makes the Shackelton story come alive so vividly.
He was born in Australia in 1885, and when he was 13 he bought a Kodak Box Brownie camera, and taught himself photography. He set up a postcard business, and gained a reputation for getting amazing shots (once he stood in front of an oncoming train to get a photo of it). He wanted to mix both adventure and art, and so he sought out expeditions going to dangerous places. He heard about Australian Douglas Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica, which was also a heroic tale (the parties split up, Mawson had to sled through hundreds of miles to meet back up with the rest of the crew only to learn that the ship had left just hours before he got back to the meeting place, necessitating a winter in Antarctica) and was the photographer documenting that journey. After he made it home, he didn’t let grass grow under his feet, and went straight back to the cold with Shackelton.
Even after the two Antarctic adventures, he became prolific in photographing the Australian forces in WWI, actually being censured for showing too much graphic detail in some photos. He explained that his commitment was to show how war was conducted and to “illustrate to the public the things our fellows do.” He became an expert in using composite images, and one of his most famous photographs of the Australian forces is a composite, which many critics decried as “fakes” at the time.
He experimented in color photos, the aforementioned composites, and panoramic images. Below are just a few of his amazing images. The National Library of Australia has most of his negatives online, and if you’re into photography, they are a must see, and a testament to the rewards and thrills of risk-taking, and living a life full of adventure.