If it looks too good to be true …

Australian photographer Frank Hurley took some of the most memorable photos of the twentieth century. If his 1915 photos of The Endurance stranded in pack ice during Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic expedition were not enough, his photos from WW1 confirmed his credentials as a brilliant and artistic photojournalist. But some of his work, especially from WW1, also raised interesting questions about the medium of photography. Frustrated by the camera’s inability to capture the complex panoramic chaos of the battlefield – the mortar fire, the exploding shells, the planes flying overhead, the soldiers charging or lying wounded – in a single frame, he decided to create composite photos that would better capture what he was seeing and experiencing. The resulting images are a legitimate and beautiful art form, but are they misleading because of what we expect a photo to be? The camera never lies, does it?

Photographic examples of Hurley’s ‘proto-Photoshop’ techniques are sometimes more subtle than his WW1 images – and possibly more widespread than we may have realised. Leafing through a book recently, titled Man With a Camera: Frank Hurley Overseas, my eye was drawn to an image of Bethlehem (c.1940-46). A striking feature of the photo was the huge cloud formation billowing up over the Biblical town. It was reminiscent of the dramatic landscape photos that appear in another Hurley book I have, The Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves: a Camera Study (published in 1952). I decided to check the Blue Mountains book, because the broadly spreading cumulonimbus cloud over Bethlehem looked familiar. Sure enough, Bethlehem and its surrounds, and the Grose Valley (in the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia) had exactly the same cloud formation hovering over them! (See my photo of the two book pages below.)

Most likely the cloud was never in the original Bethlehem photo, because you see more of the lower part of the cloud in the Grose Valley scene. And given the scale of the cloud compared to the landforms below it, it’s questionable that the cloud was ever in the original Grose Valley photo either. Aside from the fact that both photos are immensely eye-catching, there’s something disconcerting about this discovery – as if there’s been a sleight-of-hand performed, where none seemed necessary. Not only that, the photos risk being erroneous. The Blue Mountains climate and topography can generate spectacular cumulonimbus clouds – typically in spring and summer – but is that sky true of Bethlehem? Perhaps it is – and perhaps Hurley knew that – but mixing and matching skies to very different locations must have its pitfalls.

Hurley was not solely a photographer. He was a film director and cinematographer, and a speaker on the lecture circuit. His talks were based on his intrepid adventures and the photos and footage he took on them. Perhaps Hurley the showman comes through in these two photos, along with his cinematographer’s eye. His approach to some of his photos has something in common with various postcard publishers of the early twentieth century – contemporaries of a young Frank Hurley – who craftily edited and added to photographic images to amplify and beautify and dramatise … something of which Hurley was indeed a master.

POSTSCRIPT Since drafting this post, I found an informative piece by photographer Peter Hill: Photographic Fakery and Mystery in the Blue Mountains. It seems, in those earlier days of photography, that Hurley was not alone in manipulating photos – especially when the Blue Mountains was the subject. And especially when the photos were mostly likely to be reproduced as postcards answering the call of the fledgling Blue Mountains tourism industry.

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Two photos, one cloud formation. Frank Hurley’s photo of Bethelhem (left) and his photo of The Grose Valley, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia (right)

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