Before the invention of underwater cameras, photographers had to come up with novel ways to approximate the underwater world.

In late 1920 photographer Frank Hurley travelled to the Torres Strait and Papua. Australian Museum fish scientist Allan McCulloch went with him to collect specimens and ethnographic objects.

Hurley's 'underwater' world

The men had a shared interest in experimental photography and part of their equipment was a large glass tank to serve as an aquarium for the sea life they wanted to photograph and film. Before the invention of underwater, water-proof cameras, this was the nearest approximation photographers could make to the underwater world.

Trial and Error

Unfortunately, as McCulloch describes in his diary, the first corals they collected ‘gave off so much slime that the water quickly fouled and obscured all but the objects near the glass front’.

The tank was too large so that the fish had too many hiding places, the lighting difficult to filter in the hot tropical sun and as Hurley lay down to take his photographs, he was showered in green ants.

After much trial and error the men settled on reducing the tank size by way of divider boards and using only bleached corals: ‘these left the water clear and the fish could be seen swimming among the branches in dense swarms’. Glare was reduced by erecting a tent over the tank, so that the only light was the sunlight entering the top of the tank.

New digital versions 

We have just added new scans of Hurley's underwater glass plates to the Archives photographic galleries.