Pictures at an Exhibition: Frank Hurley's in the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice (1919)

Article excerpt

On the sweltering summer morning of Boxing Day 1909, thousands of Sydney-siders rode the King Street trams to the Stadium at Rushcutters Bay to witness a spectacle: the heavyweight title fight between Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons and Bill Lang. Following his brief early career in Australia, Fitzsimmons had been taken to the United States by promoter Larry Foley and became the first man in ring history to win three world titles. He was said to have a mind like 'electricity' and a punch 'as hard as a rivet gun'. (1) Since the 1890s, boxing had not only been a very popular form of live entertainment, but also as a subject in the new 'actuality' films. The Veriscope Company's film The Corbett--Fitzsimmons Fight was one of the earliest of these, premiering at New York's Academy of Music in May 1897. Approximately 100 minutes long, accompanied by a lecturer's commentary and occasionally interrupted by vaudeville acts, the film made up one of the first full-length entertainment programs to feature moving pictures. (2)

The promoter of the Sydney fight, Hugh D McIntosh, was another Australian who had won international celebrity. Born in Sydney in 1876, he began by staging fights on what was originally the site of a market garden at Rushcutters Bay, which eventually grew into the famous Sydney Stadium. Nick-named 'Huge Deal', McIntosh went on to pioneer large-scale entertainment promotion in London and the United States. He dressed like a prince and drove a Pierce-Arrow car with his crest on the side. It was his international connections that secured Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons for the Sydney Christmas season in 1909. Supervised by hundreds of police, 11,000 spectators paid from 5 shillings to 5 pounds a seat to watch the now 47-year-old Fitzsimmons beaten almost to death by the young, up-and-coming Melbourne boxer Bill Lang. (3)

Standing ring-side was the photographer Frank Hurley, then twenty-four, who would soon earn international fame in the Antarctic; with Mawson in 1911-1913 and Shackleton in 1914-1917. Using a London-made Ross twin-lens half-plate camera, Hurley was experimenting with high-speed action shots. Fifty years later, he told writer and sporting journalist D'Arcy Niland, 'No time was lost in replacing plates once a shot was taken. I could do it without losing the fighters' image on the screen because the camera was fitted with a special magazine ... which made the job of changing almost automatic'. (4) Hurley's photographs of the Lang--Fitzsimmons fight were published in the Lone Hand on 1 April 1910. The aging Fitzsimmons's face is sunburned and blistered, his mouth torn, the veins in his neck bulging with effort; Lang's nose is crushed on his cheek. The fighters' faces convey pain, bewilderment and exhaustion. The referee is caught in a moment of anguish as Fitzsimmons lies unconscious on the mat. The editorial was openly critical of boxing as a form of entertainment, citing Hurley's photographs as evidence of 'the state ... to which men are reduced in the course of these unedifying spectacles'. (5) Hurley later recalled the extraordinary effect his photographs had on people: 'For weeks they attracted crowds of curious and disputatious citizens around a Sydney shop window where they were displayed'. (6)

Exhibitions and Publicness

This account of the Lang-Fitzsimmons fight resonates with much recent work in cultural studies, cinema studies and literary history. Even at this early date we can see, for example, that the spectacular career of Frank Hurley was not entirely crafted by his own talents, remarkable though they were. His public life was also an artefact shaped by the emerging institutions and technologies of modernity, especially by the new forms of visuality: print culture, mass media and urban commercial entertainment. As Michael Gray and Gael Newton observe, Hurley was 'a child of the modern newspaper and magazine era, the musical show, the cinema, and newsreels'. (7) Yet this constitutive relation between his career and the technologies, social formations and institutions of international popular culture has only ever been incidental to writing about Hurley. …