When Ernest Shackleton was recruiting for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, there was one man he knew he wanted even before he met him. Frank Hurley, an Australian who ran away from school at the age of 13 to work in a steel mill, had earned a reputation for aesthetic genius and daredevil bravery during a previous expedition to Antarctica led by explorer Douglas Mawson. Hurley, it was said, had regularly risked his life to get the perfect shot.
Now Shackleton wanted him to document what he hoped would be the first-ever land crossing of the continent. Hurley, who gladly accepted the invitation, proposed a combination of moving and still images that he and Shackleton would present in a “lantern show” (the predecessor to a slideshow) upon their triumphant return. It was a time when explorers relied on the speeches they gave to pay off the debts of one expedition and raise funds for the next, and Shackleton knew that the more convincing the photographic evidence, the more likely it was that the public would dig deep into their pockets. .
Little did the men know, however, that the photographs and the film – which is being shown by the British Film Institute (BFI) as part of a special season to mark the centenary of Shackleton’s death – would be a chronicle not of success but survival against winds and tides. Famously, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, which left England on August 8, 1914 with 28 men, 69 dogs and £50,000 of the latest scientific and technical kit and equipment, became trapped in the ice in January following.
The men could do nothing but wait for the summer and the melting of the ice. Hurley’s photographs contrast the landscape – as unforgiving as Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell – with the reassuring routine of daily life, first aboard the Endurance and then, after the ship begins to break up , on the ice where they set up camp. There are pictures of men eating seal fat, exercising their dogs and playing football.
Finally, on November 21, 1915, the Endurance sank. Some of Hurley’s most arresting photos are of the ship’s tilted exoskeleton, lit unearthly white by the magnesium flares he had placed around it. In his diary he wrote: “Half-blind after successive flashes of lightning, I lost my bearings amid hummocks, banging my shins against jutting ice spikes and stumbling through deep snowdrifts… The negative… well rewarded the cold effort.