August 4, 2003, (near) Tikrit, Iraq
© Geert van Kesteren
Courtesy the artist

Photographing the First World War

Artists: Frank Hurley

Dates: 31.08.08 - 02.11.08

Venue: Charleston

Renowned in his native Australia, Frank Hurley’s (AU) photography should be more widely known. A brilliant technician, extraordinarily brave and physically hardy (he plunged into Antarctic waters to retrieve negatives lost to the sea during his trip with Shackleton), and above all a photographer capable of producing finely considered compositions in highly dangerous circumstances, his First World War pictures have a modern air that runs up against the usual stock of images that we hold of that time.

While photojournalism proper was born with the Ermanox, Leica and Rolleiflex, Hurley worked with bulky, slow single-shot cameras and slow film. Nevertheless, he was able to capture not only the life of the trenches and the devastated towns of the front, but also bunker scenes and combat pictures. The war presented novel difficulties of representation even to painters and graphic artists: far from the mobile massed troops and brightly coloured uniforms of previous wars, this was a camouflaged war of position in which some of the most important elements—flying bullets and shells, gas—were hard to discern.

Hurley’s frustration at risking his life continually to get pictures that did not fully represent the scenes that he saw led him to the highly controversial practice of montaging his photographs to create composite battle scenes. These montages, Hurley claimed, told a more complete truth about the war than his straight images. At a time when intense media competition combined with the ease and speed of digital manipulation to produce a suspicion of the too perfectly realised photojournalistic image, Hurley’s work casts an extraordinary historical illumination over our present circumstances.

Exhibition in association with Photoworks.


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