James Francis (Frank) Hurley was born in Sydney in 1885. He became interested in photography as a young man and in 1905, at the age of 20, he began his career with a Sydney postcard company.
In 1911, Hurley joined Douglas Mawson as the photographer on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He took both film and still photographs and returned to Sydney where he produced his film, The Home of the Blizzard. He returned to the Antarctic again in 1913 with an expedition to relieve Mawson and again in 1914, when he joined Sir Ernest Shackleton. In 1916, he assembled his photographs and film from the expedition and produced In the grip of polar ice. Hurley eventually made six trips to the Antarctic.
In 1917, Frank Hurley became one of the first official AIF (Australian Imperial Force) photographers. He was given the honorary rank of captain. Hurley's images of the Passchendaele campaign in 1917 have become famous but his use of composite prints and his photographic and 'showy' film techniques were controversial. In late 1917, he was sent to Palestine where he took many well-known images of the Australian Flying Corps and the Australian Light Horse.
In 1919, Hurley joined Ross Smith on the final leg of his flight from England to Australia. During the next decade he continued his peripatetic existence joining expeditions to the Torres Strait Island, Papua and again to the Antarctic. For much of the 1930s he worked for Cinesound in Sydney both as a cameraman and as head of its special documentary unit.
Frank Hurley used photography to achieve the effect he desired and he was known for his ability to engage the public's imagination. In 1940, he returned to war photography with the AIF in the Middle East and remained over there until 1946.
In his diary entries during 1941 Hurley made frequent references to the Middle Eastern landscape and to the history of the so-called 'Holy Land'. He noted the changes in the cities since his first visit in 1917, his impressions of the progress and management of the war and his observations on the day to day lives of both Arabs and Jews. Thus Hurley's more familiar images of Australian troops in the Middle East, taken during 1941, are mingled with these evocative images of the local people continuing their everyday lives in the midst of war. Given the troubled nature of these regions today Hurley's photographs, taken during the greatest war in history, ironically document a seemingly less divided and tormented Middle East.
On 4 June 1941, he wrote:
This historic field of northern Palestine which has been the battlefield of bygone ages and there the Light Horse put the enemy to flight with the last war is likely to be once again the scene of conflict. At present it all seems so serenely peaceful that were it not for transports and artillery travelling trundling along the roads at mechanised speed one might think all the world at rest and content.
The contrasts of peace and war are very remarkable in this Land of Antiquity. It seems to be a land for reverential reminiscence – its very soil and ancient olive trees exhale the wondrous past and create an atmosphere that makes one ponder with some reverential awe. Here one sees inhabitants that seem to have existed from Bible days – They have not altered their customs nor methods – for why should they in this land so undisturbed by commercial competition. They grow their olives, till the soil as they did thousands of years ago. Shepherd their flocks as in the days of Abraham and seem as changeless as time. Amidst all this comes tanks, mechanised artillery and bombing planes.
[Frank Hurley, diary, 4 June 1941, http:/nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms883-1-22-s15-16-v]
Earlier, on 8 April 1941, Hurley had written:
We have news today that Australian and New Zealand units are moving up to defend the Streemar Valley and the whole mid-East is becoming an enigma with many doubtful solutions. There is news of potential unrest in Iraq from which come most of our oil supplies and another theatre of problems is Syria. We require another 250,000 fully equipped troops in the mid-East to relieve the position which is not reassuring at the present time.
[Frank Hurley, diary, 8 April 1941, http:/nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms883-1-21-s20-e-cd]
After his return to Australia from the Middle East Hurley travelled, lectured and published several photographic books. He died in Sydney on 16 January 1962.
Frank Hurley's diary entries for the war years are amongst the transcripts of his diaries in the digital collections database at the National Library of Australia. His images of the local people and places in the Middle East are also part of the photographic collection at the National Library.