Frank Hurley is undeniably Australia's most renowned photographer but it is not well known that he made two expeditions to Papua from 1920-23. Now 84 of the 700 photographs Hurley sold to the Australian Museum for £100 in 1927 are about to go on show in an exhibition curated by Dr Jim Specht.
Like everything Hurley touched, the Papua photographs were cloaked in controversy. Moral questions were raised about the circumstances in which Hurley took the photographs. He was accused of theft, bullying, duplicity and unethical behaviour. Specht says Hurley was largely innocent. Not that he minded the accusations. There was always a Barnum and Bailey side to Hurley. And if a bad headline swelled the number of people paying to see his slide shows, Hurley would milk it for all it was worth.
The photographs are extraordinary and include scenes of mission life, landscapes and the first aerial photographs taken of Papua. There is a magnificent a four-frame panorama of a Papuan village which has never been seen before. But mostly there are portraits - dozens of haunting photographs of people who had never seen a camera but were persuaded to pose despite their obvious apprehension.
The cause of much controversy were photographs Hurley took of his party carrying guns in the remote Lake Murray district. “They had been told to carry guns by the Lieutenant-Governor because Lake Murray wasn't under government control,” says Specht. “But a missionary saw a photo and immediately drew the conclusion there had been violence. There was absolutely no evidence of that.”
Hurley’s subsequent slide shows were a huge success, with tours of the US and Britain. His book ‘Pearls And Savages’ became an international bestseller, encouraging him to return to the region to make two feature films, which Specht dismisses as “horrible silent melodramas”.
Source: ‘Drama that followed Hurley into the wild’ by Steve Meacham, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 2008
‘Frank Hurley:Journey into Papua’ is at the Australian Museum, Sydney, from 29 March 2008 – 15 March 2009. Admission is free after general Museum entry.
Photos: Upper - Expedition party at Lake Murray, where a week was spent photographing and collecting objects. Frank Hurley, centre, holding rifle. Middle - Sago making, 1921. Lower - Tovei village, 1921. Photos: F Hurley.