Antarctica: Frank Hurley

Shackleton expedition

Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Endurance expedition was one of the most famous in Antarctic history. Photographer Frank Hurley recorded the perilous journey in photographs and diaries, now held in the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.

In October 1914, Frank Hurley joined Shackleton's British Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, 1914-1917, as official photographer and film maker. The aim of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent via the South Pole. The expedition party arrived at the remote whaling station of Grytviken, South Georgia, Atlantic Ocean, on board the Endurance on 5 November 1914. Despite warnings of heavy pack ice ahead, they departed one month later for the Weddell Sea, Antarctica.

The "Endurance" under full sail, held up in the Weddell Sea (Paget plate 12)

During January and February of 1915, the Endurance became inexorably trapped in the ice. On 27 October 1915, the ship was crushed. Consequently, the expedition party was forced to camp on the ice floe which drifted towards Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands. In three life boats from the Endurance, the party braved treacherous seas, to reach Elephant Island on 15 April 1916. One of the boats, named the James Caird, was later strengthened, and Shackleton, together with five companions, sailed 800 miles across stormy seas to South Georgia to instigate the rescue of the remaining men stranded on Elephant Island.

The remainder of the party, led Frank Wild who was second in command of the expedition, lived on Elephant Island in a structure of two upturned boats positioned on the rocks and fastened together with canvas. These makeshift quarters, termed 'the snuggery', housed 22 men in cramped and freezing conditions for four months. The men were finally rescued by the Chilean trawler Yelcho on the 30 August 1916, when they were reunited with Shackleton, who had organised their rescue. So ended one of the most dramatic and perilous expeditions in Antarctic history.

'Endurance' in colour

Frank Hurley's Paget plates are an early form of colour photography. His striking colour photographs of the ill-fated Endurance and expedition are some of his most famous.

As official photographer on Sir Ernest Shackleton's British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917, he worked under the most extreme of conditions. He wrote of the difficulties of working in the Antarctic in his diary:

"Dark room work rendered extremely difficult by the low temperatures, it being -13 (-25 degrees Celsius) outside. Washing plates is a most troublesome operation, as the tank must be kept warm or the plates become an enclosure in an ice block." 
(Frank Hurley diary, 30 August 1915, MLMSS 389/3)

After the Endurance was trapped and crushed in the ice, Hurley managed to retrieve glass plates and film from the mushy ice water inside the shipwreck. Together, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep. They were forced to smash and leave behind about 400 glass plates on the ice, "owing to the very limited space that will be at disposal in boat transport" (Frank Hurley diary, 9 November 1915).

> View full catalogue record for Frank Hurley's Paget plates of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917 


Hurley's images are an enduring record of this most remarkable expedition of endurance and survival.