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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

One of Australia’s most remarkable photographers, James Francis ‘Frank’ Hurley brought back some of the first images and movies of far-flung places – Antarctica, the jungles of New Guinea and European battlefields – to people in Australia and throughout the world. Truly a photographer in the thick of the action, his images and films show a daring spirit and love of adventure.

Born in Sydney on 15 October 1885, Hurley ran away from home when he was 13 and worked in a steel mill at Lithgow. When he returned he bought a Kodak box camera and taught himself photography. At the age of 20, he joined a postcard business in Sydney and earned a reputation for both high-quality photographs and the risks he took to secure them (such as facing monstrous waves breaking on rocks, or an onrushing train).

Frank Hurley

Frank Hurley self-portrait, on board the Discovery, about 1929. Image from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.

Image: Photolab Imaging Services
© State Library of New South Wales

In 1911 Hurley became official photographer to Douglas Mawson’s first Australasian Antarctic Expedition. At the windiest place on Earth, he worked enthusiastically taking stills and moving images, and took part in a record-breaking sledging journey to the South Magnetic Pole.

Back in Australia he filmed an expedition through northern Australia before joining Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–17. Hurley kept documenting this trip when the ship, Endurance, became trapped and crushed by pack-ice. When the ship was about to sink, Hurley dived into the freezing water and retrieved submerged film and plates. With the men facing a long man-haul across the ice, Hurley was forced to leave behind many of the glass plates, but kept 120 precious images.

Hurley then became official war photographer for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) from 1917–18, producing the only colour-plate photographs of World War I.

During the 1920s, he filmed and photographed the first images, including aerial views, of remote parts of New Guinea, especially its tribal people. He also undertook expeditions through Torres Strait.

He returned to Antarctica with Mawson for the 1929–31 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition. Frank Hurley’s later career involved producing feature films and documentaries before serving as a photographer and director of films for the AIF in World War II. After the war he produced a series of photographic books on Australian places. He died in Sydney in 1962.

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