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Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History (2004)

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clip Hurley's composites education content clip 1, 2

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Photographer Frank Hurley achieved some of his greatest wartime photographs by combining several photos into one. Stephen Burton of the Australian War Memorial shows how it is done. Australia’s official wartime historian, Charles Bean, was outraged. He branded the photographs fakes and demanded Hurley stop making them.

Curator’s notes

The controversy over Hurley’s remarkably effective and convincing composite photos still continues today.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows silent colour and black-and-white archival film footage and still photographs taken by Frank Hurley during the First World War (1914–18). There are also interviews with photographer Stephen Burton and curator Ian Affleck, both from the Australian War Memorial, who provide insight into Hurley’s use of photographic manipulation. An actor presents Hurley’s own reasons for creating the composite photographs.

Educational value points

  • Frank Hurley (1885–1962) participated in six expeditions to Antarctica as photographer, served as an official photographer during the First and Second World Wars and documented his extensive travel experiences. Hurley’s work often involved photographic manipulation, such as staging scenes or creating composite photographs by blending elements from different photographs for dramatic effect. His approach attracted significant controversy, and has been criticised by some for diminishing the work’s value as an accurate historical record, but also praised for its originality and creativity.
  • Hurley viewed the manipulation and combining of photographic images as a means of capturing the enormous scale of war, which would otherwise be technically impossible to convey in a single image. His approach was to combine elements from a number of different photographs to better represent the elements of battle: planes, exploding bombs, trenches and soldiers advancing or 'going over the top’. There is no question of Hurley orchestrating or manipulating actual events, but his 'composites’ were compressed and dramatically enhanced versions of reality.
  • Charles Bean, who commissioned Hurley as an official photographer to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in July 1917, but was highly critical of his composite images, is referred to in the clip. Bean, Australia’s official historian and war correspondent during the First World War, held the view that it was the responsibility of commissioned photographers to provide factual photographic records, and valued photography simply for its documentary role. Bean rejected Hurley’s composite photographs, even although they may have given the audience an insight into the horrors of modern warfare, because he believed they did not provide an accurate record of the War.
  • The system used by Hurley during the First World War to produce colour images is called the Paget colour plate system. Two glass plates, a standard black-and-white negative (taking screen) and a colour screen (viewing screen) comprising a series of red, green and blue filters, were laid out to form a matrix. When the viewing screen was placed over the taking screen it reproduced the original image in colour. The Paget system was later replaced by the autochrome system, which was used at the time by French photographers and produced greater clarity.
  • Colour photography such as the examples shown here was not widely used at the time because, although cameras were capable of taking colour images, it was not yet possible to print them. They were also difficult to reproduce as black-and-white prints for the press. Colour images were either viewed on hand-held glass plates or as transparencies reflected onto a screen or wall using a 'lantern’ slide projector. Colour photographic paper was not introduced until the 1940s, and it was only then that any colour images of the First World War could be printed.
  • The clip shows footage and photographs of the First World War that were probably taken on the Western Front, where Hurley was sent at the beginning of the third battle of Ypres. During Hurley’s time on the Western Front he was dubbed the 'mad photographer’ for his commitment to capturing the experience of soldiers on the front line at significant risk to himself. Hurley’s ability to publicise his work after the War earned him widespread recognition. However, the work of Hubert Wilkins, another official photographer who served with the AIF, is often mistakenly credited to Hurley.

This clip starts approximately 26 minutes into the documentary.

The sequence shows silent colour and black-and-white archival film footage and still photographs taken by Frank Hurley during the First World War. We also see inside the research centre at the Australian War Memorial as two staff members are interviewed.

Stephen Burton from the Australian War Memorial is interviewed.
Stephen I have here an original contact transparency taken from one of Hurley’s original plates. It was taken with a Paget taking screen, and here I have a viewing screen which I place over the top of the transparency. It’s just a matter of lining these up and moving them around until the colour actually comes out.
Narrator But even in colour, Hurley sensed something was missing. There was a gulf between what he saw and what was captured on the glass plates.
Actor (voiceover) To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale – figures are scattered, the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke, shells will not burst where required. Might as well be a rehearsal in a paddock!
Ian Affleck, a curator from the Australian War Memorial, is interviewed.
Ian This is Hurley saying, ‘OK, I can’t do this. It’s technically impossible. I can’t get any decent photographs, so I’m going to actually make photographs.’
Narrator Hurley’s response was to use his darkroom skills to combine different images into a single dramatic picture. But this time, his manipulations would lead to bitter conflict.
We see a photograph of Charles Bean.
Narrator Australia’s official wartime historian, Charles Bean, was in charge of the photographic unit. He branded the composites fakes and demanded Hurley stop making them.

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