By Marcus Honesta.
With the One Hundred Anniversary of the end of the Great War commemorated this year, the names of Frank Hurley and Damien Parer are probably as familiar to many people as their photographs, which are often of high aesthetic and technical standard and have been reproduced many times over. Some of their images have achieved icon status, but these men are only two of a large number of war photographers (taking both still and moving images) whose work is held in the Memorial’s collection.
War photographers worked under difficult and trying conditions in order to record photographically the story of Australians at war. In many cases they risked their lives to do this. There were happy occasions and heart-wrenching ones to photograph and film, ranging over the whole gamut of the military experience. These varied from battles at sea to aerial shots of RAAF aircraft over steamy jungles, from weddings in churches in exotic locations to funerals held in haste between barrages on the Western Front in France. There is little of the war experience which is not represented in the collection among the work of the official war photographers.
Frank Hurley was appointed Australia’s second official First World War photographer. Hurley had been a prominent commercial photographer in Sydney before his appointment as official photographer for Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–13), and had recently returned from a second Antarctic trip as photographer for Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–16 expedition. When Hurley joined the AIF’s London Administrative Headquarters on 17 August 1917, he was already a figure with a huge reputation, widely recognised for the dramatic and highly aesthetic nature of his work.
Hurley spent over three months photographing the Western Front, where he produced some of the finest photographs of his long career. However, he had a difficult time with Charles Bean, who came to resent Hurley’s manner and what he saw as the unreliable nature of Hurley’s work: Hurley would have soldiers restage actions and events that he had missed, and, most controversially, produced composite images that combined fragments form different negatives. After a series of increasingly acrimonious exchanges with Bean over his use of composites and, more broadly, over the issue of the historical reliability of his work, Hurley left the Western Front in November 1917 for the Middle East, where he photographed the activities of the Australian Mounted Division.
Hurley was also appointed an official war photographer during the Second World War, where he again photographed Australian troops in the Middle East.
Even sixty years after his death Damien Parer remains one of Australia’s most well-known combat cameramen. He was born on 1 August 1912 at Malvern in Melbourne but was educated largely in Bathurst, at Saint Stanislaus School. Parer joined the school’s camera club and decided early on that he wanted to be a photographer. Having left school and failing to find photographic work in Melbourne, he resumed his education before finding an apprenticeship. Also interested in motion pictures, Parer, having completed his apprenticeship, moved to Sydney to work with the director, Charles Chauvel.
When the Second World War began, Parer had become experienced in stills photography and motion picture work, and was appointed as official movie photographer to the AIF. He sailed for the Middle East in January 1940 where he filmed on board HMAS Sydney after it had sunk the Italian cruiser, Bartolomeo Colleoni. Parer was on board another ship, HMAS Ladybird when she bombarded Bardia and he advanced with the infantry at Derna, his first experience of close action. At Derna he decided that he needed to film from as close to the action as possible, sometimes even in advance of the troops. Acquaintances later recalled that from the moment Parer made this decision he was doomed to die on the battlefield.
Parer filmed in Greece and in Syria, covering the action from aircraft, the deck of a ship and on the ground with the infantry. After Syria he travelled to Tobruk in August 1941 before covering the fighting in the Western desert. By mid-1942 Parer was in New Guinea ready to cover the fighting against the Japanese. During this phase of the war, he filmed some of his most famous sequences, some at Salamaua and, most notably, those used in Kokoda front line. This documentary won its producer, Ken Hall, an Oscar for documentary film-making. Behind the footage lay Parer’s deeply held desire to draw to public attention, the conditions under which the Australians were fighting in New Guinea.
In late 1942 Parer travelled to Timor to film Australians of the 2/2nd Independent Company who were fighting a guerrilla campaign on the island, the result of which was his documentary, Men of Timor. He then returned to New Guinea where he flew on a series of hair-raising Beaufighter operations against Japanese shipping in the Bismarck Sea. After that he moved to the Salamaua area where he filmed, among other actions, the well-known assault on Timbered Knoll.
In August 1943, after more than 12 months of rancour and disagreement, Parer left the Department of Information’s employ to work for the United States company, Paramount News. His early assignments involved filming further air raids over New Guinea. On 23 March 1944 during a period of leave, Parer, a deeply religious man, married Marie Cotter in Sydney. Their union was a brief one. Parer returned to action, leaving the war in New Guinea behind to accompany the United States Marines. He filmed them first on Guam and then covered the Peleliu operation.
On 17 September 1944, keen to get shots of the faces of advancing soldiers, Parer was walking backwards behind a tank, filming a group of marines advancing under fire. He was killed by a burst of Japanese machine gun fire.