Still Life / Frank Hurley’s Antarctica

September 1, 2010

STILL LIFE:
Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton
Photography by Jane Ussher,
Essays by Nigel Watson

 

FRANK HURLEY’S ANTARCTICA
By Helen Ennis

When Picador decided to issue a series called Travel Classics in the mid 1990s, their first volume was Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard was a zoologist on Robert Falcon Scott’s legendary expedition to the Antarctic of 1910-13. His account of that dreadful ordeal was published in 1922, and has moved and fascinated successive generations of readers.

The tragedy of Scott and his companions, who died knowing that Amundsen had beaten them to the South Pole by a mere 34 days, is an epic of Homeric proportions. But in place of the giants, sirens and sorceresses that Odysseus encountered, Scott’s party waged war against Nature herself: ice and snow, destructive blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Nature won the battle, but the explorers put up the bravest of fights.

Scott’s deputy on his earlier expedition of 1901-04, Ernest Shackleton, would undertake his own heroic feats during three separate journeys to Antarctica. In 1914 the expedition’s ship, Endurance, was caught in an ice floe and slowly crushed. The crew, including the Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, made camp on a sheet of ice, where they would remain for months. As the ice began to break up the party found their way to a desolate island. To affect a rescue, Shackleton and four companions undertook a hazardous voyage of some 700 kilometres in a small boat.

It’s easy to see why Antarctic exploration is a source of enduring interest. The leading figures are larger-than-life, motivated by a passion for adventure or to a desire to achieve milestones that would frequently cost them their lives.

The three Antarctic huts of Scott and Shackleton are the sacred sites of polar exploration. These rough and ready buildings in which men subsisted for months at a time have been preserved and restored by the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust. Every tin of food, every bit of old animal bone, every grimy article of clothing, has been treated with reverence by conservators, ensuring that the huts retain the distinctive atmosphere of the Edwardian period. According to the Trust’s Nigel Watson, visitors are reduced to silence, and come away feeling “impressed, humbled, privileged.”

Still Life is an evocative study of the huts undertaken by well-known New Zealand photographer, Jane Ussher. Panoramic views of the landscape in which these buildings stand, are juxtaposed with tight, gritty close-ups of their interiors. Anyone can point a camera in Antarctica and come back with an amazing shot, but Ussher has not tried to produce picture postcards. She draws us into the dark, claustrophobic world of the huts through an accumulation of significant detail.

This approach is remarkably successful in conveying the atmosphere of those dingy, haunted shacks. One can almost smell the seal blubber burning on the stove.

Ussher’s pictures are complemented by three lucid essays by Nigel Watson, which provide necessary background, and describe the experience of visiting each site. There are also excerpts from the explorers’ journals.

The text of this book is printed in white letters on black, which is slightly unsettling, but more readable than the grey typeface favoured by so many contemporary designers. The black pages and rough canvas cover play an important role in helping us to imagine the conditions in those huts – a feat of the imagination that requires all the help it can get. It underscores the tragic nature of the expeditions, allowing us to feel a glimmer of empathy with Scott and his peers.

One of those peers, Frank Hurley, would make six voyages to the Antarctic region. The most famous was with Shackleton during 1914-17, where he photographed the wreck of the Endurance and the events that followed. His pictures of the ship adrift in the ice made Hurley’s reputation, but he had already taken some unforgettable images – and performed heroic feats – on Douglas Mawson’s expedition of 1911-14.

Adventurer, showman, artist and entrepreneur, Frank Hurley (1885-1962) was a unique figure in Australian photography and documentary film-making. Hurley had courage and ability combined with a complete lack of scruples. He saw reality as no impediment to the photographer’s art, and was known for making highly theatrical composite images. Many of the pictures in Frank Hurley’s Antarctica are composites, stitched together in the dark room when the horrors of the journey were over.

They look slightly false, like the backdrops in old Hollywood movies, but are nonetheless impressive.

In this compact volume Helen Ennis selects sixty memorable images from Hurley’s two most significant trips to the Antarctic, and provides a brief overview of his travels. The pictures are drawn from the holdings of the National Library of Australia, which owns 28 of Hurley’s diaries and over 11,000 negatives.

For many readers this book will provide only the most tantalising introduction to Hurley and his work. To flesh out the portrait one must turn to Alistair McGregor’s biography of 2004, Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, or the documentary of the same year, Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History. There must be a few people like me who would love to see a set of Hurley’s original documentaries made available on DVD.

Neither the Ennis nor Ussher books attempt to cover more than a fragment of what is commonly known as the Heroic age of Antarctic exploration. There is a vast library on the subject, testifying to the hold that the polar wastes had the world’s imagination in those dying days of empire, when the European powers were flexing their muscles for the carnage to come. Those clean, bare spaces were the last frontiers to be conquered and the last refuges from a world in which progress and politics had destroyed all the age-old certainties.

Book review published for The Sydney Morning Herald, September, 2010

STILL LIFE:
Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton
Photography by Jane Ussher,
Essays by Nigel Watson
Murdoch Books
Hardcover, RRP: $???; 224 pp.

FRANK HURLEY’S ANTARCTICA
By Helen Ennis
National Library of Australia
Hardcover; RRP: $24.95; 141 pp.