The name Sir George Hubert Wilkins is relatively unknown, despite the pioneering photographer having an adventurous career rivalling that of Frank Hurley.
In fact, both Australian photographers share several uncanny parallels. Born three years apart, they travelled together aboard the Princess Victoria to photograph The Great War; went on separate ill-fated missions to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton; and meticulously and masterfully documented their expeditions with a camera. And most remarkably – unlike many of their counterparts – their lives didn’t end abruptly at sea, or frozen in the ice, or in the thick of war. They both died from natural causes as old men, just three years apart.
But Frank Hurley is not only a well-known name in Australian photography, but also a famous Australian historical figure. Wilkins, on the other hand, drifted off into obscurity, and his photography is all but forgotten.
Several contemporary biographies have shone a latter-day light on Wilkins, who climbed out of a mundane existence in the drought-stricken sheep farming country north of Adelaide to partake in adventures of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires proportions.
The most fantastical being a disastrous attempt to take a crude submarine, the USS Nautilus, beneath the Arctic icefloe across the North Pole. But he also travelled aboard the first flight over Antarctica; on a Zeppelin from Germany to New York; participated (and crashed) in an early aviation race from England to Australia; landed an out-of-fuel plane on Canadian polar sea ice to then hike for 13 days; and met famous figures like Vladimir Lenin.
Wilkins wore many different hats during his career, and is best known as an ‘explorer’ – partaking in ambitious expeditions funded by newspapers and millionaires. But it all started with a camera.
‘There is no Sir Hubert Wilkins story without his passion for the camera,’ Peter Maddern, editor of The Eye Of Wilkins, a complete retrospective photo book of Wilkin’s work, informed Inside Imaging. ‘He never gets going, he never gets his first job in London, Charles Bean doesn’t hear of him and drag him into The Great War, and so forth. Unless he was a camera man, there is no Wilkins story.’
These formative professional years behind the lens left Wilkins with a great appreciation for the power of the visual medium to document history. And he had an uncanny ability to capture a cracking good frame, with a selection of his work now published in The Eye Of Wilkins.
‘When photography became a sort-of “art form” in the ’30s and ’40s – with legends like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson – if you look back 10 to 30 years Wilkins had shot similar pictures for what made them famous,’ Maddern said. ‘He’d done the great sweeping glacier coming off a mountain like Adams had done; he’d done the decisive moment on numerous occasions. Look, they’re more primitive and the conditions he took them under were pretty horrendous, but he’d photographed these kind of images many years before everyone got excited about them.’
Maddern found two key photos where felt Wilkins executed the ‘decisive moment’. A blurry 1918 shot from WWI France shows German soldiers emerging from the battlefield to surrender, and another of an Aboriginal boy in Northern Australia, who is launching from a canoe to pierce the water with his spear to strike a dugong. As Maddern points out, the pictures aren’t perfect works like Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, but Wilkins clearly grasps the importance of capturing that millisecond before the scene would pass and be lost.
Last explorer, unknown photographer
About four years ago Maddern became acquainted with Wilkins after reading a 2005 biography written by Simon Nasht, The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Australia’s Unknown Hero. (Inside Imaging‘s editor also highly recommends)
The Last Explorer references Wilkins’ prowess behind the camera, particularly documenting The Western Front. Wilkins was appointed Australia’s third official First World War photographer – Hurley was second – by the great war historian and journalist, Charles Bean.
On the battlefield, Wilkins was to ‘record’ the war while Hurley captured day-to-day press photos for publicity and propaganda.
This was crude conflict photography – well before fast shutter speeds and strict ethical photojournalism guidelines – however Wilkins upheld a standard which would be acceptable by even today’s rule book. And he often risked it all to capture a shot, with vivid descriptions of Wilkins, earning the moniker ‘that mad photographer’ by the Germans, dodging shrapnel to set up a cumbersome camera on a tripod while bullets whizzed overhead.
On the other hand, Frank Hurley’s photographic approach aggravated Bean, who claimed some of his photography was ‘fake’. It turned out that Hurley would often direct soldiers to re-stage events, and controversially made composite images from fragments of different negatives.
Hurley, by this stage a well-known photographer after his Shackleton expedition, argued it was impossible to capture the essence of war in a single negative. But ‘if negatives are taken of all the separate incidents in the action and combined, some idea may then be gained of what a modern battle looks like’. It’s fair to say this approach would not fly well with modern day photojournalists.
Like many others stumbling upon a Wilkins biography, Maddern was captivated by this now-obscure Australian’s life story. And as a photography and history enthusiast, he was curious to track down more of his camera work, which is scattered across the world in collections held by cultural and historical institutions.
‘His first set of images of any substance that still exist was from The Canadian Arctic Expedition from Dartmouth University in the US. It’s an astonishing set of images where he’s brilliantly captured boats and local conditions, and in particular there are a set of portraits of Eskimos, or Inuits as they’re known now, and you realise this guy has more than a touch of ability.’
After drawing on Wilkins’ various image series, Maddern found the archive had a compelling harmony when all the pieces came together. Not only was it visually striking, but serves as a brilliant record of people, places, and technology of the early 20th century. It seemed obvious that, to honour the man behind the camera, Maddern should showcase the photography in a book.
‘I think one of Wilkins great strengths, and what helped keep him alive – apart from abundant luck – was he got along with everybody. He was based in the mid-north in South Australia, it was pretty lonely upbringing, but he got along well with the aborigines living along the creeks. He could talk as easily and comfortably with General Monash as he could with Inuits. I think this is partly what separates him from all these other leaders [like Hurley, Douglas Mawson] who were simply seeking fame and fortune at any cost.’
Maddern has become something of a Wilkins ambassador. Beyond the book, he’s directed a documentary, The Eye Of Wilkins (2021), which screened to sold-out crowds at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, written a three-part one-man play of Wilkins’ life, The Wilkins Trilogy, and is adapting a series of Wilkins’ radio plays to audio. Needless to say these are passion projects, and Maddern’s goal is to generate awareness for this remarkable and forgotten Australian hero’s life.