2016 / Saturday

Do or die: Frank Hurley and the age of heroes

Iselin Fagerli Haug

Lawyer and author Tim Griffiths

Lawyer and author Tim Griffiths

It was a chilly Thursday morning at Walsh Bay, and an eager crowd gathered to hear Tim Griffiths speak about his debut novel, Endurance, based on the real-life adventures of Australian photographer Frank Hurley in Antarctica and during World War I.

The book is named after the ship whose name epitomises the stoic heroism of adventurers – and soldiers at war – that Hurley recorded. While the battles raged in Europe, in January 1915 Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition ship Endurance became trapped and crushed by pack ice.

After a long winter helplessly drifting with the ice, the expedition abandoned the ship, which broke up and sank in November. Then Shackleton and some of his crew undertook a long and almost unbelievably dramatic rescue, and eventually all men returned safe, if battered, to England in 1917.

The expedition marked the end of what became known as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. The intrepid Frank Hurley filmed it all and his images have endured, offering a startling record of a time that no longer exists; in fact he suffered alongside the men in the Antarctic and during the horrors of the Western Front.

Tim Griffiths is a lawyer with a long interest in Australian history. He tells Hurley’s story in the first person, from when the boy ran away from his home in Glebe, aged 13, to becoming one of the world’s most important photographers. “He was, without knowing it, a video journalist and a documentarist,” he said. “Hurley’s photos changed Australian history as we know it.”

He became fascinated with Hurley, Shackleton and the other Antarctic explorer, Douglas Mawson, when he came across Hurley’s photographs of his expeditions in New Guinea in the 1920s. Hurley’s photographs and documentaries have been internationally exhibited and reproduced, and are credited with shaping our view of the past. Mr Griffiths’ talk touched the heart of the audience. Yet Frank Hurley was far from a perfect man, he said, with a lot of mystery surrounding his personal life.

“It remained a conundrum to me that Hurley had revelled in having such an exciting life and yet had a streak of misanthropy and was alienated from his siblings. It occurred to me there may be scope for fiction to fill in some of what remained mysterious about Hurley. This coincided with my children becoming teenagers and my having a little more time and therefore the opportunity to attempt some writing,” he said.

It is obvious that his passion for Frank Hurley has been a long and interesting adventure into Australian history. He emphasised his amazement at how Hurley not only managed to capture the essence of his life experiences, but also preserved the photos and brought them back from the front lines of war and the ends of the earth.

“There might be many people with extraordinary lives,” Tim Griffiths said, “but no one as extraordinary as his.”