Onlookers stopped in the street to take in an unusual sight. A photographer was clambering up the chimneystack of a Sydney brewery to get the winning shot … while wearing high heels.
It was 1938 and this was the first freelance assignment Adelie Hurley was given for Pix newspaper. She’d been turned down for plenty of other jobs, the gigs inevitably going to her male peers. But little did the men who doubted her then – or in the decades to follow – know that Adelie was made of far tougher stuff than they’d given her credit for. As the first female photojournalist, and one of only three to work in Australia in the years after World War II, the hurdles and stereotypes she faced only strengthened her desire for success in the male-dominated newspaper world.
“With determination, talent and initiative, she forged her career,” Adelie’s niece Flip Byrnes would later marvel. “And in doing so, paved the way for female photojournalists in Australia.”
LIFE IN FOCUS
Born on May 21, 1919, Adelie was one of four children of pioneering Antarctic explorer and World War I photographer Frank Hurley and his wife, Antoinette, a French-born singer. Frank’s far-flung work meant that during her formative years he was rarely home. But when he was fleetingly there, Frank would enlist Adelie, along with her three siblings Toni, Frank Jr and Yvonne, to help develop his pictures.
“We would sit on the stairs outside while he sat in his dark room,” Adelie’s twin, Toni, said of the routine. “We would have a stopwatch and when the time was up, we had to call out to him. We were close to him that way, but we could never jump on his lap and cuddle him.”
At 11, Adelie won a photography competition in 1930 using her Box Brownie and enlarging her prints by using the old box bellows in the school bathroom. But despite her lineage, it wasn’t her famous father who encouraged her to begin contemplating photography as a profession.
“It was not the pictures at home that stirred my interest but rather my sister’s boyfriend’s camera,” Adelie would later admit.
Toni was dating press photographer Alex Stewart who lent her twin his Graflax camera. Instantly, 17-year-old Adelie was hooked. “This is terrific,” she declared. “This is for me.”
And so she began experimenting with the medium. After a brief stint at Sydney Technical College to study commercial art, Adelie dropped out and began working as a model for papers including Pix and The Sun. But the desire to be behind – rather than in front of – the lens was far stronger.
This led to that fateful first shoot. From there, she would go on to gain the nickname “Front Page Hurley”, her fearlessness in getting the shot only matched by her bravery in the face of the rampant discrimination in the workplace. She photographed opium den raids, hitchhiked solo to Darwin to document the movements of Australian troops, jostled alongside police officers to capture the action.
All of which she did, according to her contemporaries, while wearing her heels and signature red lipstick. Jealous male colleagues would tamper with her equipment, she would later state, leading her to keep it under lock and key.
But despite her winning reputation, regular work was tough to secure. While happy to employ her as a freelancer, The Sun famously turned Adelie down for a full-time role, saying that they couldn’t hire her as “there were no women’s toilets on the photographic floor of the building”.
“It was a great life but a lonely one in newspapers,” Adelie lamented decades later after her retirement.
“I had a lot of acquaintances but not many friends. I married a few times over the years. Being a press photographer suits my personality: I’ll go anywhere, anytime.”
A CIRCULAR JOURNEY
She’d married first husband Clifford a few years earlier but in 1942 Adelie decided she’d had enough of married life and wrote him a letter. “I hope you’ll be able to do better without me as I’m not much loss,” it said. “I never was a good housewife. Work hard and forget me.”
It didn’t take long for husband number two to come around. She met American naval officer Ed McGinty at a party at her father’s house, and later the newlywed couple decided to make the jump and move to the US. This turned out to be something of a mistake. Money was tight, she was working in a nightclub and, according to her, she could see “it was going to be a bit of a grind”. Australia beckoned.
“I had jobs to come back to and a jolly good life,” she told Radio National later. “And anyhow my father … he sent me the airfare to come home. Now, I’d have never got back if he hadn’t done that.”
Arriving on her own, she went into partnership with her father for the first time.
It would be one of the defining periods of her life.
“I think it was inbred, the way it is – born within me to become a photographer,” Adelie told ABC’s Australian Story about that time with Frank.
“I think it was a destiny. To me, he was the master, and to have his approval meant the world to me. I worked with Dad for about a year and I went on trips with him. And we had a great understanding, a rapport.”
Following this, she began working in magazines as opposed to newspapers. Her work, she admits, took her away for months at a time – something that didn’t prove conducive to marriage. Ed found himself another woman during one of those trips. “So that was that,” Adelie said. “But then I had the career anyway and by then I think I was a bit sick of being married and being tied down. I don’t like to be tied down.”
Unless, of course, that was to a job. Frank Packer had hired Adelie to his company, Australian Consolidated Press, after a three-year position at sophisticated monthly publication A.M. ended due to closure. And it was at The Australian Women’s Weekly that he placed her in the coveted staff photographer position in 1956, a kudos previously only granted to male photographers.
Here, her portfolio flourished. She would shoot beautifully composed covers and fashion whilst also travelling to cover international stories in Fiji, India and even the USSR in 1962 – at the start of the Cold War. She famously captured daily life there, women and men going about their usual activities; a fascinating insight into a place usually visually represented by grim black and white shots of men in uniforms holding guns or saluting.
But while this work was certainly significant, it was her photography in the heart of Australia that would cement her legacy. She went to Arnhem Land, photographed life on outback stations and many remote parts of Australia and captured the dramatic outback imagery that was foreign in the 1960s to those in the cities. These stunning landscape images of desert, coast and rainforests would dominate the pages of The Weekly, with readers marvelling at our vast and beautiful land.
As the 1970s dawned, however, Adelie became disillusioned with the newspaper world. Photoshoots, she declared, were becoming “ugly pictures of pretty girls” and so she packed up her camera, moving with third husband Phil Harrison to the Whitsundays. There, the pair managed an island resort and Adelie took up painting.
She’d return to her tools for The Weekly again in the 1980s, producing some beautiful travel series. In 1999 and after Phil’s death, she united with her sister, Toni, to retrace her father’s footsteps in Antarctica, taking photos all along the way.
“Of course, we jumped at it,” she said of the opportunity which arose when Frank’s famous photos were displayed in a national exhibition. “We’d always wanted to go there. The beauty of it. Well, I could understand now why Dad loved going back there so often. The beauty of it got him in for sure.”
Adelie passed away in 2010 three months before her 91st birthday.
She left behind not only an incredible portfolio, but trailblazed a path for other women to follow.
Adelie’s work appears at The 90 Years of an Australian Icon exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery.
The Australian Women’s Weekly: 90 Years of an Australian Icon exhibition
The Australian Women’s Weekly: 90 Years of an Australian Icon opens on Sat 27 May and closes on Sat 27 August at Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, Bendigo VIC. The exhibition celebrates the contributions of some of the influential and trailblazing women who have made the Weekly a magazine for women, by women. On display will be some of Alice Jackson’s photos from her time at the Weekly.
27 May – 27 August, 2023
10am – 5pm daily
Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street Bendigo VIC