Marissa Roth - Following in Frank Hurley’s Footsteps

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marissa Roth is an internationally published freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. We caught up with Marissa as she embarks on her first journey of her Frank Hurley Retrospective Project.

I came to know the photographs of Frank Hurley, the esteemed 20th century Australian photographer most notably recognised for his compelling images from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica from 1914 – 1916, when I attended an exhibition about the expedition at the American Museum of Natural History about 20 years ago.

As a photojournalist then, Hurley’s dramatic images of the ill-fated ship caught in the ice spoke to me on numerous levels; their dramatic content, his brilliantly seen evocative compositions, his fortitude to work in the extremely harsh conditions, and his ability to show the monolithic scale of the environment that he beheld in Antarctica.

Now, years later, I’m still a photographer, and also wear a second hat as curator. My current project, inspired in large part by that first encounter with Frank Hurley’s images, is to create a retrospective exhibition encompassing his life’s work, which has not been undertaken before. I will be selecting the images for the retrospective exhibition and I have also chosen to literally follow in his footsteps as photographer, and will visit a number of the locales where he photographed.

My hope is to understand from a purely sensory standpoint, what Hurley saw and experienced in each of these locations in terms of the light and air, and the sounds, colours and tones. I know that on the surface everything in each of these places will be contemporary, but it is within the overall environment as the backdrop, that I am interested in seeing and feeling and potentially interpreting his experiences through my own photographs. My goal for all of these trips is not to replicate his images, which would be impossible, but purely to get a sense of place as to what he experienced.

For the duration of my travels in conjunction with preparing the exhibition I am using the Leica Q. I specifically chose this camera since it is full-frame, yields very high-quality images and is user-friendly. At this point in my career, I like to work with cameras that become part of my hand effortlessly, as most of my work is still in-the-field where my subject matter is typically transitory, and I aim to be both quick and light on my feet and almost thoughtless with my camera gear. This lovely camera - I have the titanium version - suits all of my technical and creative needs.  

I chose to commence my travels to photograph where Hurley photographed by visiting selected World War I battlefields near Ypres, Belgium, in late-September. The greatest challenge I faced in Belgium was to try to make sense of the enormity of the war in terms of loss of life, and the complete devastation of the land and everything that grew on it, and then reinterpret my observations and emotions through single images.

During the entire tour of the battlefields, I chose to respond through my own creative process by making photographs that illuminate the palpable and invisible remnants of war. I tried to incorporate visual elements in my images that evoked signs of life that gave movement such as the evidence of wind.

I’m still making sense of the whole trip - the battlefields, the losses, and the indomitable will of the human spirit to both honour the dead and remember the past, and to rebuild and thrive again as witnessed in the beautiful city of Ypres, and the farmlands surrounding it. Frank Hurley’s photographs still pulse with life as he imbued his skilled photographic technique with intellect and emotion, and they still inspire questions alongside heartfelt sorrow at the human cost of war, and show the epic scale of this war.

Find out more about the Leica Q here