Great Photographs No. 2
The Endurance, crushed by ice – Frank Hurley
Great photographers keep shooting no matter what …
The tangle of ropes and spars in this photograph was once the Endurance, the ship which Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 used on the ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’ of 1914. The object of their voyage was to land in Antarctica and cross the continent via the South Pole. Australian Frank Hurley was the photographer.
The expedition never made it. They never even landed. Before they could get ashore, the ship became trapped in the ice, was crushed and sank.
This photograph was taken shortly before she went down. The men had already abandoned ship and set up camp nearby. It was 1915. There were no aeroplanes, helicopters or naval vessels to save them. They were alone in a desolate, frozen wilderness, and they had no idea if they would get out alive.
But Frank Hurley kept taking photographs. And, despite their desperate situation, he took the time and trouble to compose his images. Look how the line of dogs is placed. They lead the viewer’s eye into the image and give depth to the foreground. They also give a sense of scale. Without the dogs (I’ve quickly Photoshopped them out, to the right) the photograph loses much of it’s power and meaning, and becomes a bit of a jumble.
Despite his life-threatening situation, Frank Hurley still took the time to compose his photographs.
There is more.
When the ship had sunk, Shackleton ordered the crew to man-haul some of the lifeboats across the ice to the open sea, in an attempt to carry them to safety …
And Frank Hurley continued to take photographs of their desperate voyage. He was criticised for this by some members of the crew who felt that he should be hauling as well. His photographic gear also took up valuable space and weight (cameras and photographic plates were a whole lot more bulky in those days) – leading to more grumbles from the other men, who had a strict limit on the personal possessions they could take.
But Hurley was the photographer of the expedition. And he wasn’t going to give up on his job until the end.
And what was the end?
After a hugely difficult and dangerous voyage – which involved a sea passage of nearly 1,300km in an open boat, riding out a hurricane that sank a 500-ton streamer, and a journey on foot by three of the party over the uncharted mountains of South Georgia – Shackleton managed to rescue his crew. He got every one of them out alive. And the photographs that Hurley took were rescued too.
Hurley may have been criticised for taking photographs when he should have been hauling. He may have been criticised for taking up too much space with his equipment. But he was doing his job, which was equally difficult. And through his extraordinary images we now get some idea of the hardships those men endured, and their remarkable achievement.
Frank Hurley was one of the world’s great photographers.