rank Hurley, a husky, curly-haired Australian, ran away from home when he was 14 and went to work on the Sydney docks. He was tough and could curse as well as a man twice his age. But he had an artistic side that appeared early in his rough life. At the age of 17 he bought his first camera, a 15-shilling Kodak Brownie. He paid for the little box camera at the rate of a shilling a week.

He quickly taught himself the technical aspects of photography and, using a sure eye for landscape splendor, set himself up in the postcard business. In 1910, at the age of 25, he saw a chance to link photography with adventure: Australian explorer Douglas Mawson was planning an expedition to Antarctica. Hurley brashly cornered Mawson in a private railway compartment and asked for the job of expedition photographer.

Mawson took a chance on the confident young man. And so did Kodak. Hurley, whose postcard business was suffering through a recession, was in debt to a local branch of Kodak. The Kodak manager provided photographic equipment, and Hurley went off on the Mawson expedition in 1911.

Antarctica, a continent unknown, beckoned adventurous men of the time, a golden age of polar exploration. Expedition photographers were important not only because they could document the event but also because the sale of rights to photos and movies helped to finance the exploration. The explorer would then later use the photographs and film on the lecture circuit.

Hurley raised expedition photography to a new level. He did not make routine photos of explorers posing in the snow. Instead, he often focused on the snow itself, or on grim snowscapes that became beautiful in his compositions. These scenic studies he integrated into the documentation of the expedition. When he returned, Kodak sponsored exhibitions of Hurley’s work at photography salons around Australia.

Hurley, who worked with both still and movie cameras, also made an expedition film, “Home of the Blizzard,” which was shown in England. Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctica explorer, saw the movie and hired Hurley. Like many explorers before him, Shackleton hoped to partly finance a cross-Antarctica expedition through advance sales of photographic, film, and story rights.

On Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, and throughout the 22-month ordeal, Hurley was courageous and, in the words of a shipmate, “hard as nails.” Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said of him: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera & would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.”

Fearless and innovative, Hurley climbed masts, trekked across quivering ice, and ventured into the frigid night to take his extraordinary pictures. He dove into icy water to retrieve his glass-plate negatives after the Endurance sank.

Experimenting under conditions no expedition photographer has ever faced, he used new color techniques and created panoramic scenes by taking photographs in a series. He was a storyteller both in photos and in words, leaving as a legacy of the Shackleton expedition not only his photography but also his lyrical and incisive diary.

Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, sees Hurley as “a real loner.” He was “very Australian with a tough Aussie sense of superiority,” she said in an interview. “He is relentlessly—not cheerful—but determined not to take stock of the difficulties around him. His diary gives you an insight into his ethic.”

During the long wait for rescue on desolate Elephant Island, for example, Hurley fires off a caustic appraisal of his companions, writing of how he is disgusted with the way they have broken down. “Blizzards are raking the island,” Alexander says, “and he is assessing these men. This is a striking passage to write with frost-bitten fingers.”

On an island that some men see as a place where they will die, Hurley has time to rhapsodize about “the profound grandeur” of “these savage cliffs with the drifting snow & veiling clouds.”

Incredibly, Hurley returned to the beginning of the ordeal, South Georgia Island, in the winter of 1916 to try to finish the story: He had missed only one part of the saga—Shackleton’s perilous voyage back to South Georgia to get help. A film he made on South Georgia, “In the Grip of the Polar Pack,” became a popular success when it was released in 1919.

Hurley, with the honorary rank of captain in the Australian Imperial Force, served as a frontline photographer in World War I. He took some of the war’s only known color photos—“and some,” wrote Alexander, “are small masterieces of stark, muddy misery.” Later he traveled to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania, where he photographed more in a travelogue style. He produced several books about Australia.

On January 16, 1962, at the age of 76, he came home from an assignment lugging his battered old camera case. He sat down and, uncharacteristically, said he did not feel well. He sat there all night and died next day, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Picture Courtesy of Scott Polar Research Institute.