Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley's Synchronized Lecture Entertainments

Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley's Synchronized Lecture Entertainments

by Robert Dixon




‘Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity’ is not a biography of Frank Hurley the man; it is instead an examination of the social life of the many marvellous and meaningful things he made as a professional photographer and film maker. The focus of this volume surrounds the media events that encompassed these various creations – what Hurley called his ‘synchronized lecture entertainments’. These media events were at once national and international; they involved Hurley in an entire culture industry that was constantly in movement along global lines of travel and communication. This raises complex questions both about the authorship of Hurley’s photographic and filmic texts – which were often produced and presented by other people – and about their ontology, as they were often in a state of reassemblage in response to changing market opportunities. This unique study re-imagines, from inside the quiet and stillness of the archive, the prior social life enjoyed by Hurley’s creations amidst the complicated topography of the early twentieth century’s rapidly internationalizing mass-media landscape. As a way to conceive of that space, and of the social life of the people and things within it, this study uses the concept of ‘colonial modernity’.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857287953
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/15/2012
Series: Anthem Australian Humanities Research Series
Edition description: First
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert Dixon is Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a past-President of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and has published widely on Australian literature, postcolonialism, Australian cultural studies, and aspects of Australian art history, photography and early cinema.

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Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity

Frank Hurley's Synchronized Lecture Entertainments

By Robert Dixon

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Robert Dixon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-759-3



At the height of Sydney's summer theatre season in 1921, Frank Hurley was presenting his latest entertainment, the Melanesian travelogue Pearls and Savages, to record houses at the Globe Theatre in George Street. On 10 December he wrote to Sir Douglas Mawson, who in 1911 had taken Hurley as his camera operator on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Hurley had a deal to put to him. He had been back from Papua, 'the land of Headhunters', for a couple of months now and was bursting with ideas for a new show. 'Briefly,' he wrote, 'my project is this. To produce an Evening's "Antarctic Memories" using Shackleton & your film in conjunction.' Not given to modesty, Hurley went on, 'I would lecture with an assistant, & will have the presumption to say that there is no one will make a bigger success of the picture than myself, as I am well in with the Union Theatres & press & public.'

Three months later and still on tour, Hurley was staying at the Oriental Hotel in Melbourne's Collins Street. He had received a positive response from Mawson and replied, 'I will be back in Sydney in a fortnight & will have an agreement drawn up ... The rights I presume will include N[ew] Z[ealand]. About the rest of the world – continental, UK & US ... As I expect to be over there in the near future fine business could be done.' By now a seasoned showman, Hurley got down to details: 'To prepare & make slides, compose lecture, arrange music etc will take me at least three months hard going & I reckon to secure the most powerful "adventure & unique film".' 'The past experience of exploiting these attractions,' he boasted, 'has shown me the best means of getting the best money.' When, he asked, would the negatives be available? The point was that Mawson still held copyright on the expedition's negatives and a show could not be produced without them: 'Slide making will take considerable time especially the colouring ... in addition to the slides I will run off a few hundred enlargements for Window Show Cards & I was thinking of producing a high quality album of Antarctic scenes to be sold in the theatres.' 'Also,' Hurley asked, 'could you loan me sledges, tents or equipment of any description ... for display purposes.' Finally, Hurley was worried that Mawson might try to take control of the project. 'It is imperative for the best results,' he warned, 'that the entire show be left entirely in my hands – I have had wide experience now in this form of synchronized lecture entertainment & of "putting it over".'

As things turned out, Hurley never did mount a show called Antarctic Memories' – it was just one of many such schemes he cooked up from time to time – although in 1925 he did publish a travel book that had grown out of the idea. What interests me, though, about his correspondence with Mawson in the early 1920s is that it allows us to begin re-imagining the media landscape in which he was working at that time. One historian of early photography has described it as 'fluid and polyvalent', 'complex and fragmented', an ever-changing mix of established media and emerging, 'cutting edge' technologies. In certain respects it forms the horizon of today's mass-media landscape, and yet there is also much about Hurley's world that belongs to a slightly more distant past, to the traditions of late nineteenth-century urban entertainment.

But what exactly were these 'shows' he had become so expert at putting on? It is common to refer to Hurley's major works by the titles of his 'films': The Home of the Blizzard, In the Grip of the Polar Pack-Ice, Sir Ross Smith's Flight and Pearls and Savages. But the stage and screen practices of the early twentieth century were different to those of our own time. Hurley did not work in just one medium. He was, as Julian Thomas argues, an old-fashioned 'showman' whose repertoire included both traditional and modern media, which he used in both old and new ways. As his proposal to Mawson indicates, Hurley's synchronized lecture entertainments were complex performance events involving a combination of at least some but normally all of the following media: photographic exhibition, including the sale of quality prints and albums; saturation newspaper and magazine coverage in the form of travel articles, serializations, advertisements, interviews and photographic essays; the presence of a celebrity for the purposes of advertising or as a lecturer; silent cinema projection, often involving several titles on a single programme; projection of coloured glass lantern slides; painted tableaux and drop screens; live musical accompaniment; advertising posters, illustrated programmes and themed theatre decorations; the display of related historical or ethnographic artefacts – in this case the sledges and other expedition equipment; and finally radio broadcasts and mainstream book publication, all coordinated, syndicated and, in the industry jargon, 'tied-in' to achieve maximum advertising exposure and maximum revenue.

The number of venues and professions that might be involved in staging such an event was daunting: theatres, art galleries, exhibition halls, museums, book publishers, newspapers and magazines, printers, commercial artists, cinema agents, lecturing agents, photographic equipment manufacturers, companies specializing in the latest techniques for reproducing images, new modes of urban and international travel and communication, and the complexities of contract, company and copyright law. To the disapproval of a scientist like Mawson, these events were entertaining as well as educational, drawing as much attention to their own attractions as to the events they purported to represent. There was about them a sense of self-promotion and even opportunistic contrivance that smacked of what contemporary press men called stunts. And finally, Hurley's mass-media spectacles not only toured Australia's capital cities and regional towns; they often took place simultaneously overseas by arrangement with the press and various entertainment agencies in New Zealand, Great Britain, Europe, the United States and Canada. There could be no hint of colonial belatedness. A Hurley event, wherever it was staged, spoke from the centres of the English-speaking world; it was alert to the very latest ebbs and flows of an increasingly international if not yet global entertainment industry.

This 'not yet global' entertainment industry, existing on the cusp of older and emergent worlds, was part of what I have called colonial modernity. As Tracy C. Davis argues, theatre history in the period from the 1890s to the Great War is best understood in terms of something like a world system, an international interaction of finance, entrepreneurial personalities and management combinations which increasingly circulated theatrical product and personnel through worldwide steam, rail and telegraphic networks. And as Veronica Kelly observes, in such a global network, the movement of energy, ambition and talent is not always one directional, but flows from 'multiple sites'. Depending on the topic of his show and the location of his audience, the modern entertainment experience Hurley offered to his public was either a sense of the international felt locally, or of the regional or national projected on to the international stage.

By the early 1920s, then, Frank Hurley had become not only the ringmaster but also the leading attraction in his own travelling, international, multi- and mass-media circus. In the language of today's media theory, we might call this an early or emerging form of the mass-media event. In this chapter I examine the earliest development of Hurley's multimedia stage and screen practice in its national and international contexts. I examine how the young Hurley came to acquire the various personal, financial and technical skills that were necessary to stage such media events. And I approach this as an historical not a biographical inquiry. As Thomas observes, 'Hurley spent a lifetime looking for adventure: the result was a career directly shaped by the dynamics of twentieth-century imperialism. His work was carried along on global currents of colonialism and war.' His career was also shaped by the emerging institutions and technologies of colonial modernity, especially the new visual technologies and their modes of exhibition, and the changing forms of print culture. From whom did he learn the art of staging synchronized lecture entertainments? How did he come to take artistic and financial control of his own media events? How did he turn himself from a local Sydney photographer into Mawson's and Shackleton's camera artist, and then into an international celebrity in his own right?

The Travelogue

Hurley's synchronized lecture entertainments belonged to a tradition of mixed-media stage and screen performance that was popular in Great Britain and North America around the turn of the century, which came to be known at that time as the travelogue. According to the OED, the first recorded use of the term was the London Daily Chronicle report of 6–7 April 1903, that 'Mr. Burton Holmes, an American entertainer new to London, delivered last evening the first of a series of "Travelogues".' When we think of these early travelogues today, we tend to think of the travelogue film, but it is precisely the rich and complex relation between early cinema and other forms of representation that I want historically to recover by returning to the term synchronized lecture entertainment.

The travelogue film, as Jeffrey Ruoff observes, is a form that dominated the early cinema from 1895, played a key role in the development of documentary and ethnographic film during the 1920s and 1930s, flourished in the postwar era of 16mm distribution, and continues today in the typical programmes of IMAX theatres. But the travelogue is more than just a neglected form of early cinema: as a performance genre, it incorporates a wide spectrum of other, often pre-cinematic forms of representation, and stage and screen practices that have been obscured, retrospectively, by cinema historians' emphasis on film as text. As Ruoff goes on to point out, 'the travelogue often involves a live component, embracing experiential and performative dimensions of the cinematic experience that challenge our conceptions of the medium.' The new industrialized forms of representation, including photography, advertising, the illustrated daily newspaper and the early cinema, arose together with industrialized modes of transportation and communication, such as the steamship, the train and the automobile, and telegraphy and telephony. But they also existed alongside other, pre-industrial forms and practices such as lantern-slide projection, lecturing, live musical performance, the hand-tinting of cinema film, and hand-made stage props and theatre decorations. These diverse components of the modern and pre-modern worlds intersect precisely in travel, tourism and colonialism, and 'in the vortex of these forces', as Ruoff observes, 'lies the travelogue.'

There is now a growing body of scholarship about the live, illustrated travel lecture as an important pre-cinematic form of entertainment, though much of it is written by American scholars and remains tightly focused on the stage, screen and commercial practices of the American showmen. Charles Musser, carol Nelson and X. Theodore Barber, in particular, have done pioneering work on individual travel lecturers Lyman H. Howe, John L. Stoddard and E. Burton Holmes. Yet the globally dispersed nature of colonial modernity meant that many of the early showmen travelled widely, and that some of those who made successful careers in Europe and North America were British and even Australian born.

Showmen had long toured with magic lanterns, projecting slides to the accompaniment of a lecture, and sometimes live or recorded music and sound effects. In the United States, the most important lecturers were initially those who travelled the Lyceum and chautauqua circuits, though important institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American and Royal Geographical Societies were also active in arranging lecture programmes. By the early twentieth century a number of influential private lecturing agencies had emerged, including the Lee Keedick Agency in New York and the Gerald christy Lecture Agency in London: Keedick's letter-head proclaimed him to be manager of 'the World's most Distinguished Lecturers, Readers [and] Musicians', and in 1915 he organized Sir Douglas Mawson's tour of the United States.

The National American Lyceum was established in Millbury, Massachusetts in the 1830s, and in 1868 James Redpath established the Redpath Lyceum Bureau to provide lecturers for the many established lyceums that had spread throughout the country. Moving from town to town, and speaking at public buildings such as town halls, concert halls and opera houses, they typically repeated the same lecture or course of lectures throughout the season. Until the mid-nineteenth century, lantern slides were painted by hand, but the late 1840s brought the development of photographic slides, and by the 1860s they were manufactured in larger quantities for commercial distribution. The lectures – or 'picture talks', as they were sometimes called – covered many topics, including the literary classics, but travel was always popular. Lecturers could buy stock sets of slides and lectures without themselves being either travellers or photographers, but it became increasingly common for the lecturer to be a noted world traveller, to take or at least to commission his own original slides, and to write his own lectures as original, first-person narratives. With that practice came the rise of the showman's personal celebrity.

The most famous American platform personalities of the late nineteenth century were John L. Stoddard and his successor, Elias Burton Holmes, whose professional name contracted as his celebrity increased, initially to E. Burton Holmes and then, definitively, to Burton Holmes. Unlike some of the earlier showmen, Holmes was himself a photographer and personally took many of the slides used in his shows. He was a charismatic performer, engaging audiences from the lecture platform with dramatic accounts of his travels in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Appealing to the respectable middle classes, he performed in quality, Lyceum-type venues, dressed in an evening suit and was renowned for his well-modulated delivery. The lectures were published annually as illustrated travel books, and by 1910 they were being sold in deluxe 12-volume sets.

Beginning in 1890 with Through Europe with a Camera, Holmes's early lectures were accompanied by lantern slides, but he reacted quickly to the challenge posed by the motion picture's popular arrival in 1896. His business partner and projectionist, Oscar B. Depue, later recalled, 'we had a growing rival – the motion picture. As a result, at the end of the 1896 season, Mr Holmes sailed for Sicily and Italy, and I sailed for London, the Mecca for motion pictures.' Their intention was to seek out the finest motion picture camera. Eventually buying a 60mm Demeney from Leon Gaumont in Paris, they took their first film of the crowd in St Peter's Square in Rome. The footage was shown the following season in Chicago as a novelty attraction at the end of a lantern-slide lecture, but the two media were soon fully integrated into a single show.

Early cinema historian Rick Altman argues that the introduction of cinema into the travelogue did not initially displace the centrality of the lecturer and his stage patter. 'When film entered the American entertainment industry,' he observes, 'it was heavily dominated by performers' and 'films often existed only to the extent that they could be included in a live performance.' Altman therefore advocates an approach to the history of early cinema that would highlight performance practice rather than the anachronistic concept of the 'movies'. That premise has fundamentally informed my research on Hurley's stage and screen practice. To understand the travelogue, Altman argues, 'we must ... put aside our firmly entrenched film-oriented approach to cinema in favor of a performer-oriented position.' Burton Holmes's seminal career well illustrates this point. Although he came to be linked with the new term 'travelogue', he remained an exponent of what were always billed as illustrated lectures. Altman explains that at first he treated his films as a novelty, showing them only at the end of his lectures. Later they were interspersed throughout his programme, but the advertisements for his performances continued to stress his name and the term 'lecture', 'consigning the illustrations – both slides and moving pictures – to the small print.'

The standard projection equipment was soon modified to allow for the ease of cinema's integration into illustrated lectures. Late nineteenth-century projectors combined a lantern light source and transport mechanism with an add-on 'motion head'. This technical integration was reflected in the style and content of the lectures. Because they were designed to replace lantern slides when the lecture called for action, sequences of motion picture accentuated movement. Altman cites as an example the 1903 travelogue, Samoa: The Tropical Paradise of the South Pacific, by American 'lecturer, traveler & correspondent', Dr Edward Burton McDowell. Billed as 'Stories of Travel illustrated by original motion pictures and lantern slides', the programme includes a series of episodes illustrated by motion pictures: 'Samoan Dance', a 'Canoe Race', a 'War Dance', and a 'Food Offering and Processional March'. Each of these sequences was intended to take the place of a lantern slide. In this sense, Altman argues, 'the films were still incorporated into the show as "views", according to the era's conception of still photographs: they did not yet constitute the standalone object that would later be understood by the term "motion picture" (in the singular).'


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Table of Contents

Illustrations; Acknowledgements; Introduction: Australia’s Embrace of Colonial Modernity; 1. ‘The Home of the Blizzard’: Douglas Mawson’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainment; 2. Guided Spectatorship: Exhibiting the Great War; 3. Touring the Nation: Shackleton’s ‘Marvellous Moving Pictures’ and the Australian season of ‘In the Grip of the Polar Pack-Ice’; 4. Entr’acte: ‘Sir Ross Smith’s Flight’, Aerial Vision and Colonial Modernity; 5. Colonial Modernity and its Others: ‘Pearls and Savages’ as a Multi-media Project; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘This book offers much more than a compelling study of the genius of Frank Hurley. Importantly, it presents a fascinating examination of the inter-relationship of colonial modernity, the cinema and new forms of mass entertainment. A must for anyone interested in the history of the early twentieth century’s mass media and its relationship to everyday life then and now.’ —Professor Barbara Creed, University of Melbourne

‘This volume opens up a rich and original area of scholarship, demonstrating the diverse ways in which new technologies were exploited, but also showing how these new technologies were formed and adapted by their users. Robert Dixon challenges the orthodoxy of the last 30 years of colonial and postcolonial studies by placing Australian multimedia work at the centre of international movements of modernity.’ —Professor Katherine Newey, University of Birmingham

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