Photographer Frank Hurley needs little introduction to anyone fascinated with early 20th century Antarctic exploration, or who has ever been moved by his stark images of the Western Front.
Barely thirteen, Frank escapes family violence in Sydney and jumps a freight train in search of adventure. While labouring in an iron-works, photography becomes his passion. Eventually, he sets himself up commercially but runs into financial troubles. When a friend jokes he never seems to feel the cold, Frank sees himself the ideal candidate for photographer to Douglas Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911. This leads to his recruitment in 1914 by Ernest Shackleton for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, during which Hurley takes some of his most iconic images, such as Endurance stuck in the ice. Rescued after desperate months on Elephant Island, Frank is still not afraid to put his life on the line and plunges headlong into the bloody conflict at Ypres and Passchendaele.
Author Tim Griffiths has connected strongly with the complex spirit of Hurley. Behind the swagger of the gutsy showman are echoes of the misfit, the stubborn loner ill at ease with privilege or bureaucracy. Even those who love him are destined to never truly hold him.
There is immediacy and reality here on every page. The imagery of clinging to life at the extreme margins of existence is intense. There are stomach-churning scenes of wholesale slaughter – animals and birds on the ice, human beings in the trenches – that contrast markedly with the mercenary self-interest of individuals not always as heroic under stress as formal accounts would have us believe.
This is a spectacular tale all around, a superb example of how a biographical novel can bring history alive for those who may find academic versions too dry or daunting. Very highly recommended.