‘Frank Hurley’s domesticated sublime’, Australian Centre for Photography forum. October 26, 1996
David Millar, Snowdrift and Shellfire, David Ell Press, 1984.
Julian Thomas, Showman, National Library of Australia, 1990.
Scot Bukatman, ‘The Artificial Infinite’, in Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, eds Lynne Cook & Peter Wollen, 1995.
Ken. G. Hall, Directed by Ken G. Hall, Lansdowne Press, 1977
Anne-Marie Condé, ‘A Marriage of Sculpture and Art: dioramas at the memorial’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, November 1991, pp56-59
Postcard trade and camera club movement 1900s
Mawson Antarctica 1911-13
Shackleton Antarctica 1914-16
Flanders and Palestine AIF 1917
Papua New Guinea early 1920s
Mawson Antarctica 1929-31
Cinesound cameraman 1930s
Middle East AIF 1940s
‘Camera Study’ books 1946-66 (even after his death)
Captain Frank Hurley was much more than just a photographer, he was also a filmmaker, a performer, an adventurer and, by the end of his career, a household name. Colleagues such as the film director Ken G Hall and the journalist Maslyn Williams referred to Hurley as a ‘showman’. By that they meant that he himself was the essential subject of all his work, and that he strove for customer satisfaction, entertainment value, and spectacular effect above all other considerations, including veracity.
For instance Hurley made many combination prints out of the material he shot in Flanders as one of Australia’s two official war photographers. He immediately ran into conflict with the Australia’s war correspondent, later to be Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, who needed simple factual documents of the War. Hurley, however, wanted immediate “publicity pictures and aesthetic results”.[Millar 48]
“None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered—the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke—shells will not burst where required—yet the whole elements are there could they but be brought together and condensed. The battle is in full swing, the men are just going over the top—and I snap! A fleet of bombing planes is flying low, and a barrage burst all around. On developing my plate there is disappointment! All I find is a record of a few figures advancing from the trenches—and a background of haze. Nothing could be more unlike a battle. I might be a rehearsal in a paddock.” [Millar 50] “[I] Am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to secure effects without resorting to combination pictures”[Millar 51]
To Hurley photographed battles must be coherent, legible, and dramatic. However Bean was implacably opposed to this argument and called Hurley’s combination pictures ‘fakes’. He wanted historical documents from which a posterior account of the war could be properly constructed. For this reason Bean was very supportive of the concept of the model dioramas built for the Australian War Memorial in the 1920s which, in their dramatic logic, cinematic power, spatial compression and explanatory completeness are, in fact, very similar to the Hurley combination prints he so disapproved of in 1917. For the purposes of this sanctioned presentation of history Bean himself even urged the sculptors involved to judiciously edit and combine the facts of the battles to make for a more expository, emotionally engaging diorama. [Anne-Marie Condé]
Hurley displayed six of his combination prints in London in 1918 as giant seven by three metre enlargements accompanied by 130 or so smaller straight prints and continuous projections of full colour lantern slides. The viewer of Hurley’s combination prints in 1918 would have comprehended them not as literal truth, but as an emotional attraction. They would have seen the combination techniques not as illicit fakery, but as entirely licit ‘special effects’—where it is the production of an effect worthy of emotional and phenomenological investment by the viewer that counts. For the contemporaneous viewer, his WW1 images were verifiable by reference not to reality but to the reality of their affect—on an emotional and ideological as well as a pictorial level. So, despite Bean’s objections, Hurley’s combination prints were never fakes in the sense that a manipulated image would be called a fake later when, with the elaboration of the documentary mode in photography and film, viewers were trained to read an image from the fragmentary, contingent point of view of the participant. By the late 20s and 30s readers of picture magazines and viewers of weekly newsreels had been taught to valorise the sense of physical proximity to the actual moment the photograph conveyed, over its scenographic exposition of the unfolding event.
Hurley was prevented by Bean from bringing this phantasmagoric attraction to Australia. But in the display of smaller images which he was eventually allowed to exhibit at the Kodak Salon in Sydney in 1919 he freely admitted to using combination printing. In the catalogue he states:
“In order to convey accurate battle impressions, I have made several composite pictures, utilising a number of negatives for the purpose. The elements of these composites were all taken in action and submitted to the G.O.C. A.I.F. who gave his approval for their production.”
However Hurley is clearly being disingenuous here, perhaps in response to his dispute with Bean. A large part of the motivation for his use of combination printing wasn’t, in fact, to create a theatrically complete, legible, battle tableau. His addition of piles of cumulus or storm clouds, through which shafts of sunlight are breaking, and the proscenium frames of church architecture, are clearly pictorial tropes of the sacred and the sublime which provide the moral benediction of God and Nature to Imperial victory.
Hurley had extensive experience with the production of popular attractions at this time, all of which used the latest film and photographic technology, and all of which featured himself as ‘showman’. As a postcard photographer in the 1900s he had specialised in pushing the envelope of the new photographic technologies, producing postcards taken at night, using flash or extended exposures, or photographs which dangerously froze high speed trains or crashing waves. The appeal of these images to contemporaneous audiences would have been as much in their status as artefacts of a new technology, as in their pictorial aesthetics.
In 1913 his film on the Mawson expedition Home of the Blizzard screened in Sydney whilst Mawson was still stranded in Antarctica. Hurley appeared at each screening as the figure of the returned Imperial explorer to give a personal recitation to accompany the film. In 1914 he shot and again appeared with Into Australia’s Unknown about Francis Birtles car expedition across Australia. In 1919-1920 he toured internationally with In the Grip of the Polar Ice about the crushing of ‘The Endurance’ on Shackleton’s expedition. And in 1919 he exhibited and narrated With the Australians in Palestine.
In 1920 he appeared with The Ross Smith Flight, about the first flight from the UK to Australia in under thirty days. He accompanied Smith on the final legs of the flight, but the film also incorporated previous footage shot in Palestine and on the Birtles expedition. It also, significantly, had metres of blank film cut into it for the projection of colour lantern slides, and trick effects to produce the illusion of the pilot’s point of view whilst approaching Australian cities, created by jiggling postcards of the cities in front of a tracking camera. Pearls and Savages, shot on two expeditions to New Guinea, ran for five months in 1922 with specially composed piano music, chemical and hand tinting, interspersed colour slides, and a personal appearance and recitation by Hurley as the returned explorer.
These films were made before the Documentary Movement. They had none of the diegetic logic developed by Documentary pioneers such as Grierson and Flaherty after Flaherty’s seminal Nanook of the North of 1922. Nor did they assume the objective invisibility of the filmmaker. Rather they revolved around Hurley’s actual physical presence as the returned hero who was not so much auteur of, as physical witness to, the disjointed sections of film projected on the screen. He was also, of course, the showman impresario of the various technological effects he created and displayed. They therefore conform to the ‘cinema of attractions’ as it has been theorised by Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen: that is, a cinema of presentation, rather than representation, where the space and time of the film, and the space and time of the audience in the auditorium, remain continuous and are not severed by the illusion of cinematic montage and the diegetic drive of narrative.
Although Hurley’s films were made pre Documentary, they are not proto Documentary. Hurley remained essentially anti Documentary throughout his life. When he was sent to Africa with Australian troops at the beginning of WW11 as head of the Department of Information’s film unit he ran into trouble once more with both the requirements of the Department for exciting newsreel footage, and with his younger colleagues who were intoxicated by the Documentary ethos. As an exasperated Damien Parer wrote back to Max Dupain:
“Hurley hasn’t much news sense which is necessary to the job: he goes mad about bloody native boats, and mosques and clouds (cumulus variety only)…[and] worries about ‘quality’.”
For the decade before WW11 Hurley had been Cinesound’s chief cameraman. In 1924 he had made two ‘location’ fictional films on Thursday Island, Hound of the Deep and The Jungle Woman which he conceived of as extensions on Pearls and Savages, however these were not successful. But at Cinesound he was able to add his ability to shoot sweeping, operatic landscapes, plus his affinity for special affects, to Cinesound’s series of nationalistic features directed by Ken G. Hall. Thus, for instance, for The Squatter’s Daughter he devised the opening sequence of a mob of 10,000 sheep, which in Hall’s words:
“seemed to float like a long white cloud down the valley, stirred by the rising sun. The purely photographic sequence still stands vividly in my memory as a projection of Australia with which I am glad to be associated. I used it at some length in the feature and the rest went into the Cinesound library for use on innumerable occasions” [78 Hall].
He also helped devise the final climatic bushfire sequence lit by festooning the trees with thousands of feet of Australia’s film heritage in the form of flammable nitrate stock. He became something of a specialist outdoors and effects cinematographer throughout the 1930s. Charles Chauvel brought him in to shoot the horse charge sequence in Forty Thousand Horsemen, about the Australian Light Horse in Palestine, where Hurley used a similar technique to one used by Leni Riefenstahl in Olympia, and placed the camera in a deep pit over which the horses jumped.
Eventually Hurley’s outmoded deep focus style, plus with inability to empathise with filming anything other than landscapes, combined with his reluctance to work as part of a team, forced Hall to move him sideways into his own ‘Industrial Division’ to make documentaries for corporate and government clients. This work culminated in the 1938 sesqui-centenary featurette A Nation Is Built where Hurley’s imperial, industrial sublime reaches its highest pitch. The film features some more special effects, such as a scene where Governor Phillip imagines a modernist city rising out of his Sydney Cove tents. But it is most memorable for panoramic sweeps of cities, industry and pastoral landscapes.
The climax features not a floating cloud of sheep, but a field of golden grain beneath his by now trademark cumulus clouds. The narrator declares:
“The amazing transformation of a country of wild bush land into a highly developed commonwealth in the brief one hundred and fifty years has no parallel in history. Nor could we today be harvesting the benefits of a great past were it not for the fact that our nation builders were imbued with a sublime patriotism. […] Nor are our peoples unmindful of the beneficence which has been showered down upon our land by the Creator of all things. This lovely scene inspires us to something more than mere admiration. The bounty of the earth impels us to look up to the good will which is in the heavens and to say ‘We Thank Thee’. Just as those of the past had visions of the greatness of the future, so we the builders of today must build towards our nation’s mightiness of the morrow. In harmony and consort our voices are raised: “God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet’.”
The heavens above are invoked in A Nation is Built in the same way as they were in his Flanders combination prints: as a technologically produced special effect, as a sublime pictorial supplement, and as a divine cum natural benediction on the Empire. In the filmic montage we can more clearly see how, as well as being simply a pictorial trope, Hurley’s sublime clouds actually provide an additional spatial vector to the image. The camera pans around in proprietorial survey of the bounty of Empire. Wipes and dissolves move us horizontally along in a cavalcade of history not unlike the procession of floats up Macquarie Street in the Sesquicentenary Parade. But then the camera also lifts us up ecstatically to the clouds for us to receive a divine blessing on our Imperial progress.
After WW11 Hurley began to produce a series of Camera Study books on each state, major city, and eventually on Australia as a whole. These books ended up selling a total of 168,500 copies. The books are quite different to other ‘Australiana’ picture books. Unlike, say, Ernistine Hill, Ion Idriss, Bill Peach, Albie Mangles, the Leyland Brothers or the Bush Tucker Man, Hurley is not interested in collecting and stringing together anecdotal travel stories or eccentric characters as signs of nationhood. Rather he is interested in nationhood enacted by scenery itself. His landscapes are conceived of as gigantic prosceniumed stage sets complete with all the theatrical machinery of flies, flats and backdrops. His people are not characters, but extras.
In that sense, of course, his sublime is rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But Hurley’s sublime is much more circumscribed than the Burkian sublime of astonishment, terror and awe at a power far greater than the human, a power which paradoxically uplifts us because it threatens to annihilate us, a power whose immensity provokes a crisis in the viewer which can only be resolved by their identification with it. Hurley’s sublime is more circumscribed, even, than the manifest destiny of the nineteenth century American Luminists, with their ideological investment in the natural inevitability of the great American nation evidenced by its sublime wildernesses. Hurley’s own vision splendid takes place within a comforting horizon of civic, industrial or pastoral scenery. His nation’s manifest destiny is domesticated and almost suburban. In all of the 220 pages of Australia: A Camera Study of 1955 there are only a few pages devoted to outback scenery, and virtually none devoted to what we would now affirmatively call wilderness, a word which had entirely negative connotations for Hurley. Aborigines do not appear at all.
His photographs are therefore empty stage sets, images of an imperial potentiality, a libidinal void waiting to be filled with flowing floods of sheep or churning turbines. All his landscape are technologised to some extent, mechanically and repetitively clunking themselves through their pictorial machinations. They encourage us to lob our gazes, almost ballistically, across them. The technique of special effects was still felt by Hurley to be necessary to his project, he still combined negatives to add in clouds, sunrays, birds and aeroplanes.
Summary of points:
Hurley’s photography is anti-documentary. And his cinema conforms to the ‘cinema of attractions’ rather than the proto documentary. It is non-diegetic, non anthropological, and uninterested in actuality. It is interested in affect and is based on the figure of Hurley as showman.
Although Hurley’s sublime aesthetic had its roots in the nineteenth century (via the postcard trade and the camera club movement’s connections to art photography) it was expressed within a twentieth century technic. His sublime is pictorially troped and technologically tamed into a special effect.
Hurley’s sublime is not a phenomenological excess—a visual plenitude which takes us to a great infinity beyond the pictorial space of the image. Rather it gives his images two distinct vectors:
 The horizontal pan around a horizon which is spatially consistent with a proprietorial panoptic survey, but also with a temporal cavalcade of history.
 A vertical pan up to a transcendent, beneficent, affirming God who is above the imperial thrust of history, but confirms it.