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Frank Hurley’s artistic legacy from a career spanning nearly 60 years places him among the greatest Australian photographers of the twentieth century.

When invited to photograph the activities of Anglican missions in Papua in the early 1920s he saw an opportunity to photograph and film what he viewed as an exotic and savage land – and advance an already successful career.

Hurley’s photos reflect both an Australian-controlled Papua – a place where government and missionaries exerted a strong influence in the areas they occupied – and a more traditional Papua. These images, together with his diaries, artefacts and film, form a significant archive of Papua’s history. 


It seems incredible that within a few hundred miles of Australian shores we dwell on the outskirts of the unknown – we are as ignorant of this enchanting and productive country as fools.
(Frank Hurley, Diary B, 23 April 1921)

Hurley’s journey into Papua began in Port Moresby, the colony’s capital, in April 1921. After several days meeting government officials and visiting local villages he sailed on the Tambar toward the eastern tip of Papua.

Hurley was assisted at every level by missionaries and government officers. They helped him communicate with local people and organise demonstrations of crafts, dances and other activities for his cameras. ‘Choreographed’ scenes such as these would become a recurring feature of much of Hurley’s Papuan portfolio. The local people also helped Hurley by carrying his heavy photographic equipment and transporting him by canoe to remote places where government and missionary vessels could not reach.

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Here, Hurley focused on his official photographic work as he recorded the activities of the Anglican mission stations. While his diary entries show mixed reactions towards the missionaries, the Papuan people and their lifestyles fascinated Hurley and presented him with exceptional photographic opportunities to further his personal goals.

He also purchased many artefacts, only to discover later that he had to leave these behind because he didn’t have a collecting permit. This wouldn’t be the only time that Hurley’s lack of preparation caused him and his companions difficulties.



My primary purpose is to take cinematographic films and plates for a travelogue entertainment.
(Frank Hurley, Diary A, 2 December 1920)

The Mekeo and Goilala areas were potentially the most dangerous part of Hurley’s journey as they were not yet under full government control. The areas did prove to be hazardous – not because of political problems but because of Hurley’s own actions.

Hurley had a large party accompany him: two armed policemen and a number of Papuan men who carried his vast array of phonograph and camera equipment. Far more interested in making sure his precious cargo followed him, Hurley didn’t organise enough food for the four-week patrol, so the party went hungry on more than one occasion. Although the landscape and people impressed Hurley, he felt that they lacked the cultural spectacle and drama that he pursued for his adventure story.



So that scientific research may be undertaken, I have engaged a small party of specialists of whom Mr Allan McCulloch of the Australian Museum is in charge.
(Frank Hurley, Diary 1, 29 August 1922)

In 1922 Hurley returned to Papua on a privately funded, though officially approved, venture to improve the film he created on his first trip. Accompanying him was biologist Allan McCulloch, who would collect natural history specimens and artefacts for the Australian Museum.

Unfortunately, both men became embroiled in controversy when McCulloch’s collecting practices soured their relationship with Papuan officials. This would later result in Hurley being refused permission to visit Papua for more filming.

For this expedition, Hurley used two seaplanes brought from Sydney and a boat, the Eureka, chartered in Papua. The planes caused a sensation in Port Moresby as they were the first to be seen in the colony. Always looking out for unique opportunities, Hurley took this chance to shoot the first aerial photos of the town and its neighbouring villages before he flew to Kaimare village.



… the shores are quite depopulated and solitude fills the place.
(Frank Hurley, Diary 2, 21 November 1922)

Hurley’s visit to Lake Murray – only the fourth by white people –created quite a sensation for the locals. For some lake men this was their first encounter with white foreigners, as most had avoided contact with earlier visitors. His photos were the first taken in the area and capture the mixture of curiosity and uncertainty that the lake men felt towards their visitors.

In November 1922, Hurley left Lake Murray for Thursday Island to repair his two-way radio equipment. His radio was his only link to the safety of the wider world and, of course, the Australian media – an outlet for his creative works. Meanwhile, though, the Lieutenant Governor of Papua was at Lake Murray, expecting Hurley to arrive for their official meeting. Hurley never showed up.



The views across the waters of Aramia Lake from the entrance to the communal house of Totani are beyond beautiful. The waters are broken by numerous islets and undulating rises all clothed in grass of verdant green.
(Frank Hurley, Diary 3, 27–30 December 1923)

Hurley’s ability to make the most of any situation is revealed in the series of images he took along the Fly River. This river connects Lake Murray to the coast, meandering for several hundred kilometres across low-lying swampy land. There were no villages to be seen but an undeterred Hurley photographed river scenes while McCulloch collected biological specimens. Eventually, they reached the Aramia River, where the Gogodala people lived in longhouses on small islands. [Photo 58, and a map showing the places locations mentioned]



Hurley reached Goaribari Island at night while a ceremony was underway in Kerewa longhouse. A problem with the ship’s engine meant that Hurley could not reach shore. Frustrated, Hurley blamed his engineer for the fault, overlooking the fact that he himself had chartered this ship – one that was old and poorly maintained.

When he finally landed the next morning, he had just missed the ceremony, but he managed to photograph people leaving the longhouse and everyday activities.



… the villagers will have nought to do with traders or recruiters. When it was explained that my object in visiting them was merely to study them, make pictures, and purchase curios, we became extremely popular.
(Frank Hurley, Diary 3, 6 January 1923)

Persistence and the belief in making your own luck were Hurley’s defining characteristics. Unsatisfied with the footage of Urama Island he had taken in wet and gloomy conditions in 1921, Hurley revisited in 1923 to get better shots for his photographic portfolio and his film, Pearls and Savages.  



In the early 1920s few people had the opportunity to witness what Hurley experienced. Aware of this fact, he created the film Pearls and Savages to bring a glimpse of an exotic land to the armchair traveller and generate a profit.

After a successful tour of Australia Hurley took the film to the USA and the UK in 1924, and with the money raised he went on to produce two feature films. Eventually in 1927 Hurley sold his film to a German company and most of his photos to the Australian Museum.