Countless historical expeditions are remembered for their leaders—brave, charismatic characters, mostly male and often military officers at one point or another. Think, for instance, of John Wesley Powell's 1869 Colorado River exploration, Sir Edmund Hillary's first trip to the top of the world in 1954 (it was years before sherpa Tenzing Norgay got his fair shake) and Ernest Shackleton's failed South Pole journey aboard the Endurance, from 1914 to 1916. These men are celebrated as heroes, and their sometimes self-serving accounts of their expeditions become the "official" history. But what about the rest of the crew, the men who cook the food and carry the gear and labor in the shadows, never to achieve widespread notoriety? Sometimes they, too, pass on their own accounts of the journey.
Such is the case of Shackleton's expedition photgrapher, Frank Hurley, who captured the doomed Antarctic journey with an unflinching eye, often working with ridiculously bulky equipment in terrible conditions—and our understanding of the trip is much richer for it. If you're in need of a refresher, Shackleton set sail from Buenos Aires in October 1914 with 27 men, 69 sled dogs and one cat. Their objective: Be the first to cross the Antarctic on foot. Before reaching the edge of the continent, though, the Endurance became trapped by—and eventually frozen in—ice. The crew stayed with the ship for nine months—hunting penguins and seals, playing games and otherwise entertaining themselves—hoping the thaw of the Antarctic summer would free Endurance and the journey could continue as planned.
(Frank Hurley/The Ralls Collection)
During that time, Hurley made the best of matters, adapting the ship's fridge into a makeshift darkroom where he created hundreds of glass plate photographs depicting the mundane (and, in another sense, extraorindary) aspects of daily life. He wrote of the time:
Darkroom work rendered extremely difficult by the low temperatures it being -13°C outside. Washing [plates] is troublesome as the tank must be kept warm or the plates become an enclosure in an ice block…. Development is a source of annoyance to the fingers which split & crack around the nails in a painful manner.
Then, in late October 1915, the ice began to crush and sink the Endurance. It was time to abandon ship, and everyone was allowed to save two pounds of belongings. Luckily, Hurley could carry as much of his work as he possibly could. According to Hurley:
I hacked through the thick walls of the refrigerator to retrieve the negatives stored therein. They were located beneath four feet of mushy ice & by stripping to the waist & diving under I hauled them out.
He and Shackleton edited the collection, saving 120 images (including some little-known color photos) and smashing the remaining 400 to eliminate doubt and second guessing. He let most of his camera gear sink with the ship, and held on to a simple Vest Pocket Kodak camera and three rolls of film. He would shoot only 38 more photographs over the next 10 months, during which he and the rest of the crew would drift on ice floes and endure a harrowing lifeboat journey to Elephant Island, where most of them were marooned. In late April 1916, Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles in a 22-foot lifeboat to fetch help.
(Frank Hurley/The Ralls Collection)
“Hurley is a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture," wrote Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer on the Endurance. Hurley's photographs, shown in this slideshow and currently on display in Washington, DC at The Ralls Collection, are a wonderful record of human endurance and survival.
Also, this video by The Queen’s Gallery offers another glimpse of what Hurley went through as the Endurance sank into the ice: