Friday, 15 January 2010

A Change in the Weather

Somewhere a key was turned, and the freeze has begun to unlock. It seemed to happen on Wednesday. I drove our son up to Oxford in the morning, and it was Winter Wonderland all the way from Winchester: although the main roads were clear, there was an unbroken white blanket of snow from horizon to horizon. The trees were particularly pretty, their branches traced out in snow against the dark of the woodland interior like a photographic negative. Then as I drove back in the afternoon the rain started, and it all began to turn into grey slush.

Talking of frozen wastes, I saw a report that some of Frank Hurley's abandoned camera kit may have been found in the Antarctic. Hurley was a remarkable photographer, an Australian and an adventurer in that classic "Edwardian" mould, who was a member of Shackleton's staggeringly heroic expedition of 1914-16.
After they abandoned the debilitated Endurance, Shackleton ordered the crew members to pare their personal possessions down to two pounds each. Hurley had to leave his precious cameras behind, but Shackleton allowed him to keep a selection of photographs and motion-picture footage. Stripped to the waist, Hurley dove into the icy waters to retrieve his treasured images from the sinking wreck of the ship. Together, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep and smashed about 400; Shackleton feared that Hurley would endanger himself to return for them later. Hurley sealed the plates in metal tins with improvised solder, along with prints he had developed on board the ship. Hurley documented the remainder of their odyssey with only a handheld Vest Pocket Kodak camera and three rolls of film.
PBS/Nova, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure
A lot of Hurley's work is available on the web, and repays viewing. That it was taken in such extreme conditions with a glass-plate view camera on a heavy wooden tripod beggars belief. You can buy scans of images from his albums from the Australian National Library -- here's one I couldn't resist:

The caption reads:
"This photograph, taken by the light of the midnight sun, shows the bows of the Discovery wending a way through floes and brash ice off the coast of Kemp Land, Antarctica"
Self-evidently, it was taken from the top of one of Discovery's masts with a wide angle lens. On a glass-plate view camera by a man in an extra-thick woollen jumper and three pairs of socks. Talk about "f/8 and be there"...


Martin said...

We still have our fair share of adventurers, but will their efforts ever be remembered as 'heroic'?

And, is it me, or is that first photograph dominated by two penguins in sunken relief?

Mike C. said...

"is that first photograph dominated by two penguins in sunken relief?"

Ha! Well spotted, Mr. H.!!

This is clearly the time to mention one of my favourite books, "Penguins, Traveling the World: the Long Road Home" by Willy Puchner, in which Mr. Puchner poses two model penguins (one with a camera round its neck) in front of the tourist sights of the world (the pyramids, Tower Bridge, a camper van in Rotterdam with "Free as a bird" on the back, etc.). It's a very witty book, like Martin Parr after a few spliffs, and highly recommended. Copies can be picked up very cheap (see Amazon or Abebooks).


Gavin McL said...

This post sent me back to a book I've had for awhile. "Endurance" by Caroline Alexander. It's full of Frank Hurley's photographs and tells the story of the voyage with excerpts from various diaries.

This bit from Worsley's diary could have been written about the photograph you posted: "H is a marvel [W]ith cheerful Australian profanity he perambulates alone aloft & everywhere, in the most dangerous & slippery places he can find, content & happy at all times but cursing so if he get a good or novel picture. Stands bare & hair waving in the wind, where we are gloved & helmeted, he snaps or wind his handle turning out curses of delight & pictures of Life by the fathom"

Some of my favourites are the night photos of the Endurance in the ice, the ship looming out of the dark like the a ghostly Flying Dutchman. Hurley took them by light painting using flashes (presumably not speedlights) and he describes himself "Half Blinded after the sucessive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst hummocks, bumping shins against projecting ice points & stumbling into deep snow drifts" No doubt with some choice Australian profanity.

And one last quote as I know you enjoy new words - Hurley in describing one of the huts they built on Elephant island with the small boats says "The entire party of 22 sleep in this small space snugly though sardiniously"


Mike C. said...

"Sardiniously"! And no doubt by smell as well as proximity...

Are the Hurley reproductions any good in that book, Gavin? Somewhere out there is a book that does them justice, though I've yet to find it.

There's something hugely symbolic about Shackleton's expedition -- it's like an admirable but inadequate counterweight to the mindless industrial bloodletting taking place at the other end of the world at the same time.

For the "gentleman of independent means" that pre-war Edwardian high summer must have been something close to heaven. For everyone else (women, workers, servants...), of course, heaven was a long way off.


Gavin McL said...

How good are the reproductions - Hmmm. I know you have exacting standards I don't have much/any experience on this front so here goes.
I have a copy of Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs paperback edition published by Moma and a copy of Paul Strand: The World on My Door Step published by Aperture. I think the reproductions in The Endurance are better that LaP but not as good as the Paul Strand book, but not far off.
The Endurance is not a "Photo Book" and not Large (81/2" by 91/2") and not many of the photographs are full page but there is notes page on the photographs and I will repeat what they say about reproduction
" The photographs in this book were all made from the original glass plate and film negatives, or from interpositives made directly from the album photographs. The duotone reproductions were matched as closely as possible to prints that Hurley made of his own negatives shortly after the Endurance expedition. All of the photographic prints were produced by Barbara and Michael Gray at their studio near Bath. Michael Gray is curator of th National Trust, Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock."

I hope that helps.

This copy I have, I purchased in 1999 in Canada
Title: The Endurance
Author: Caroline Alexander
Pub.: Alfred A. Knopf in association with The American Museum of Natural History
ISBN 0-375-40403-1

Your comments about the timing of the expedition and the slaughter of the first world war are so true.

The first thing Shackleton wrote to his wife once he had found the men on Elephant Island was

"I have done it. Damn the Admiralty... Not a life lost and we have been through Hell."

If only more of the men in charge had had that attitude.

The expedition knew the war had started and when they returned to "civilization" they all assumed it would be over.

My Great Grandmother and her family were wealthy during the Edwardian period. Her father Thomas Emmanual Hurst Hodgson was a succesful businessman for periods but sailed close to the wind and ended up in court a few times finally going bankrupt to the tune of 70 million (in todays money) in 1909. I have some photographs from that period and it does look all rather halcyon - Tennis parties, carvanning holidays (proper gypsy caravans!), car rides out to country pubs.

The other have of the family were down a Barnsley pit - but thats another story


David Brookes said...

I believe I remember hearing that Hurley had written up on the wall of his darkroom "Near enough is not good enough". That might explain why his pictures are so good.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that Gavin, I'll request a copy for my birthday.

I love the idea of writing to your wife from the Antarctic in 1916! I know the post was better in those days, but... I'm trying to imagine the contemporary version, maybe a cellphone photo with text ("all OK. see u l8er. check hurley w no shirt again lol. xxx ern").