Over the top

Tuesday 11 November 2003

For Remembrance Day, a reminder that arguments about the authenticity of the photographic record are not new.

Frank Hurley, in France with the Australian troops in 1917, wrote about the problems of recording what was going on around him:

I have tried, and tried again, to include events on a single negative but the results have been hopeless. Everything is on such a wide scale … Figures scattered, atmosphere dense with haze and smoke​—​shells that simply would not burst when required. All the elements of a picture were there, could they but be brought together and condensed. The battle is in full swing, the men are going over the top​—​I snap. A fleet of bombing planes is flying low, there is a barrage bursting all round. But on developing my plates there is disappointment. All I find is a record of a few figures advancing from the trenches and a background of haze.

'Very large print of Over the Top, a composite shot of World War I battle in Ypres, signed Frank Hurley 1917, propped against a house' [nla.pic-an23478249]

Frank Hurley’s controversial answer to this problem was to combine multiple images into a single composite print. I’ll quote from Lennard Bickel’s book ‘In search of Frank Hurley’ (Melbourne, Macmillan, 1980):

Hurley burned with eagerness to display the lives of ‘our boys’ for their people at home but at the same time he was ‘sick of being among the dead and the suffering men’ and this fed his disillusion with high command and led him into his ‘great argument’ with Charles Bean, telling the historian again, and again​—​’It is impossible to secure full effects of this bloody war without composite pictures.’ It won him no ground; Bean was backed from on high and Hurley was complaining through the bitter fighting of September 1917 that army authority had restricted him​—​’…I am not even allowed to insert clouds!’

It took a hard campaign​—​and a threat to resign as Australia’s official war photographer​—​before the army allowed Hurley to make a series of composite pictures for exhibition. ‘Over the Top’ is perhaps the best-known and most controversial of these.

filed under History + Photography + Prints

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