"Painting with Light: The Composite World War 1 Photography of Frank Hurley" by Stephanie Selya


"Painting with Light: The Composite World War 1 Photography of Frank Hurley" by Stephanie Selya

Australian WWI photographer Frank Hurley was hired to record the events of WWI for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Better known for his photographs of the Endurance expedition into Antarctica, Hurley’s photographic recordings of WWI have generally been overlooked. Experiencing war firsthand, he felt that he could not accurately represent the war without being permitted to make composite photographs, images derived from multiple photographic negatives. His feelings on this topic were so strong that he tendered his resignation dependent on that allowance. His reasoning, and his photographs, can be used to shed light on the bigger issues of WWI representations, and on the limits and possibilities of the photographic medium at the time.

The history of the making of composite photographic images relates to the methods of pictorialism, and nineteenth century trends of art photography. Yet, Hurley was hired to make photojournalistic images, at the opposite end of the photographic spectrum. Experimenting in the late nineteenth century, photographers wanted photography to be on the same artistic hierarchical level as painting, and so they manipulated their images to appear more compositionally similar to painting. Perhaps the most well-known figure in the world of art photography, O.G. Rejlander’s work can be used as a model for understanding the possible intentions behind the work of Hurley. While this was celebrated at the time as the proper way to fit photography into the canon of art history, the 1920s saw a radical change in ideals, causing this kind of art photography to be seen as indecent.

Considering Hurley’s diaries from the war, research on the nature and history of composite photography, and visual data from two of his WWI composite photographs, the tensions surrounding the visual knowledge associated with making composite prints can be explored. These pressures existing between Hurley’s desire to create images which gave an impression of the war, and to record the events of the war as he was hired to do can be fleshed out to show an alteration in the discussion surrounding photography as an artistic medium. Hurley’s choice to make composite photographs of his experiences during WWI, combined with discussions surrounding the purpose and uses of photography can create a new dialogue centering on the understanding and conception of photography’s functioning within the setting of WWI.

Find out more about Stephanie Selya.

  • HAAARCH!!! 2014
  • Undergraduate Work