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James Francis (Frank) Hurley (1885–1962)

by A. F. Pike

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James Francis (Frank) Hurley (1885-1962), adventurer, photographer and film maker, was born on 15 October 1885 at Glebe, Sydney, second son of Edward Harrison Hurley, Lancashire-born printer and trade union official, and his wife Margaret Agnes, née Bouffier, of German descent. At 13 Frank ran away from Glebe Public School and worked in the steel mill at Lithgow, returning home two years later. At night he studied at the local technical school and attended science lectures at the University of Sydney. He became interested in photography, buying his own Kodak box camera for 15 shillings. In 1905 he joined Harry Cave in a postcard business in Sydney and began to earn a reputation for the high technical quality of his work and for the extravagant risks he took to secure sensational images, such as a famous shot taken from the rails in front of an onrushing train. He also gave talks at photographic club meetings and in 1910 mounted the first exhibition of his work in Sydney.

In 1911 (Sir) Douglas Mawson invited Hurley to be official photographer on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. From December 1911 to March 1913 Hurley worked enthusiastically under arduous conditions, taking both still photographs and movie film, and his high spirits made him a popular and valued member of the team. Back in Sydney he rapidly assembled his movie footage and successfully presented it to the public in August as Home of the Blizzard. In November, after a brief filming trip to Java, Hurley joined another expedition to Antarctica to relieve the stranded Mawson.

Hurley's fame grew rapidly and he was commissioned by Francis Birtles to film an expedition by car through northern Australia. In October 1914 he joined Sir Ernest Shackleton in yet another Antarctic expedition and produced his most famous still photographs—a series showing the ship Endurance, being gradually destroyed by pack-ice, and the heroic struggle for survival of Shackleton's men. He ended the adventure in November 1916 in London where he assembled the film and photographs, including colour plates. Early in 1917 he briefly visited South Georgia to secure additional scenes to complete his film, In the Grip of Polar Ice.

In August Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Force as official photographer with the rank of honorary captain. Shocked by the carnage in France and Belgium, he showed his 'burning resentment' in such photographs as 'Morning at Passchendaele'. At the same time he found Ypres 'a weird and wonderful sight, with the destruction wildly beautiful'. He ran great risks to film exploding shells and clashed with Charles Bean, the official historian, over his desire to merge several negatives into one impressive picture: to Bean such composite pictures were 'little short of fake'. Disgusted with army administration and irked by censorship, Hurley resigned, but was sent to the Middle East, smuggling out some coloured photographs. In Palestine he flew for the first time and had many adventures while photographing the Light Horse during the battle of Jericho. In Cairo he met a young opera-singer, Antoinette Rosalind Leighton, daughter of an Indian Army officer, and after a ten-day courtship, they were married on 11 April 1918. Later that year in Sydney, Hurley worked furiously to arrange exhibitions of his photographs and to give lecture tours with his films, to great public acclaim and commercial success. In December 1919 he was invited to join the pioneer aviator, (Sir) Ross Smith, on the final leg of the historic flight from England to Australia. Hurley filmed Australia from the air—The Ross Smith Flight was also highly popular.

Between December 1920 and January 1923 Hurley made two long and well-publicized filming expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands and to Papua, and attracted further attention by shipping two small planes to Port Moresby and flying them along the coast. Again, the Papuan films (especially Pearls and Savages released in December 1921) were major commercial successes. He followed them up with a book of traveller's tales and photographs, also called Pearls and Savages, as he was to do with several other of his films.

However, he clashed bitterly with (Sir) Hubert Murray and the Papuan administration over allegedly bad publicity that he was giving to the Territory through his sensational stories of head-hunters and unexplored jungle wilds, and more seriously over allegedly improper methods used to gather a large collection of artefacts for the Australian Museum, Sydney. In 1925 Hurley was refused entrance to Papua to make a fiction film for the Australian-born magnate of the British film industry, Sir Oswald Stoll: the film crew was forced to relocate the production in Dutch New Guinea; Jungle Woman was released in May 1926, followed by Hound of the Deep, made for Stoll on Thursday Island. After spending 1927 as pictorial editor for the Sun in Sydney, Hurley set off on an abortive attempt to fly from Australia to England, then in 1929 joined the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition again under Mawson's command. Two films — Southward ho with Mawson and Siege of the South — were both shown widely in Australia with accompanying lectures from Hurley in 1930-31. He was awarded the Polar Medal and two bars and in 1941 was appointed O.B.E.

The 1930s were no less busy for Hurley, but entailed a more settled life with his family at Vaucluse. He worked with the Cinesound studio as cameraman on four feature films, but his meticulous style did not adapt well to the high pressure of expensive studio productions, and Cinesound established him instead as the head of a special documentary unit, to produce films for government and private sponsors. In World War II, Hurley again served as official photographer with the A.I.F. in the Middle East, but the methods that had brought him fame in World War I now caused clashes with younger film makers like Damien Parer, who found him old-fashioned and eccentric. He remained in the Middle East until 1946 making documentary films for the British government, but they attracted little attention. After his return to Australia, he concentrated on still photography and published several books of photographs of Australian landscapes and city portraits. Lecturing and journalism filled more of his time and he continued to travel frequently, although mainly within Australia. He died of myocardial infarction at his home at Collaroy Plateau on 16 January 1962 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, son and three daughters.

Frank Hurley was always restless, a self-styled loner who braved danger in exotic areas to provide romance and adventure for armchair travellers. He retained the use of 'Captain', to help cultivate this image. For three decades he inspired Australian film makers and photographers and was the most powerful force to shape Australian documentary film before World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Legg and T. Hurley, Once More on My Adventure (Syd, 1966)
  • L. Bickel, In Search of Frank Hurley (Melb, 1980)
  • A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • R. Lansell and P. Beilby (eds), The Documentary Film in Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia: Minutes of Evidence (Canb, 1928)
  • Hurley diaries (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

A. F. Pike, 'Hurley, James Francis (Frank) (1885–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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