On June 1, 1910, a 57-meter-long, 9.6-meter-wide whaler left London. Inside, 64 men undertook a heroic mission to the icy seas of Antarctica. It was about the legendary Terra Nova expedition. Leading the crew was British Royal Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912). It was the second and last feat of this popular hero through unknown lands, from which he never returned. Nor could he fulfill the dream that illuminated his imagination and that of the crew: to be the first to reach the South Pole, as the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen took the lead for 34 days. More fortunate was the photographer and filmmaker Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935), who was part of the adventure as an official photographer and was able to return to England with more than a thousand images of the mysterious and frozen continent: the visual diary of a heroic feat without happy ending.
PHOTO GALLERY: The White Silence of Antarctica
Nor would the formidable enterprise conceived by Ernest Shackleton aboard the Endurance: cross the Antarctic continent from end to end for the first time, entering frozen seas and unknown dangers, navigating between icebergs as big as castles, in a climate that registers the coldest temperature on Earth. There was no obstacle capable of stopping the determination of this intrepid Irish expeditionary, for whom the only possible failure was not being willing to explore. Frank Hurley (1885-1962) was hired as an official photographer along with 27 men who attended an advertisement published by The Times that said: “Men are wanted for dangerous travel. Low salary. Extreme cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Return is not guaranteed. Honor and recognition in case of success”. More than 5,000 applicants were submitted. In the beginning, the Australian artist’s photographs must have served to reveal to the public the reality of an unexplored territory; however, they became a testament to a survival feat when the ship became trapped in the ice and slowly succumbed in the dark waters of the Weddell Sea. Forced to abandon ship, 200 glass negatives were saved. After months of survival in the ice, the expedition managed to reach Elephant Island. There she had to wait to be rescued for another four months, while Shackleton and five of his men again ventured across rough seas in search of help. They all survived.
Endurance of The Great White Silence brings together for the first time the photographs of Ponting and Hurley along with those of Captain Scott. Images that make up the first chapter of polar photography. The exhibition has been organized by the British gallery Atlas. Due to the temporary closure motivated by the pandemic, the images can be viewed through its website. It consists of 34 photographs printed with the platinum-palladium technique, a very popular printing process among 19th and early 20th century photographers. They are landscapes that connect with the sublime idea of romanticism, where nature manifests its majesty, beauty, strength and mystery. “Leaving aside the extraordinary stories that accompany them, these images are among the great landscape photographs, comparable from a photographic point of view to the work of the great landscape photographers of the 20th century”, highlights Ben Burnett, gallery director .
Ponting already had a reputation as a photographer when he embarked on Scott’s adventure. Between 1904 and 1905 he covered the Russo-Japanese War for Harpers Weekly. In 1910 he published In Lotus Land Japan, an illustrated book that established his fame as a photographer and travel writer. His images served to entertain the members of Terra Nova in the talks he organized. Despite the fact that photographic film had already been invented, his perfectionist zeal led him to use glass plates, which provided higher quality at the cost of long exposure periods, to which his models were subjected, not without complaint, action that became known among the expedition as “ponting”. On several occasions, he risked his life to take a photograph, aware of its value to an audience intrigued by life on the ends of the earth. It had a darkroom set up at the base camp, at Cape Evans, on Ross Island. The moving images captured through a Newman-Sinclair camera, specially adapted to the expedition, compose 90ºSouth (1933), the sound version of The Great White Silence (1924), a classic of documentary cinema. The British artist would spend his last 20 years making his work known, as a tribute to the courage and courage of his fellow expedition members.
Ponting sailed for England a month before Scott’s death. His age, 42, saved him from becoming part of the small expedition undertaken by the captain and five of his men to the South Pole. They would arrive on January 17, 1912. After the disappointment of discovering that Admunsen had been there, they made their way back to base camp. None survived the return trip. “The end cannot be far. It’s a shame but I don’t think I can write more, ”Scott wrote in his diary on March 29. Eight months later, he was found dead in a small tent, along with two members of the expedition. Before leaving, Ponting taught Scott how to use the camera. Part of these images were made between September and December 1911, and a small support expedition was in charge of taking the negatives to the base camp. They were found a few years ago in the British photographer’s archive and are now included in the exhibition.
“Ponting and Hurley were very different photographers,” says Burdett. Hurley is more formalistic in his approach. Hurley is freer, more in the vein of the first reportage photographers. Its best known image, that of the Endurance at night, is totally modernist in concept and involved making use of multiple flashes magnesium. This is something that Ponting would never have considered ”. One crew member described Hurley as “a warrior with a camera, willing to go anywhere, and do anything to get a picture.”
In one of the last entries in his journal, Scott wrote: “I don’t think any human being has ever struggled with what we have faced in this last month.” When the director of the Scott Institute for Polar Research at the University of Cambridge, Julian Dowdeswell, was part of the 2019 Weddell Sea expedition (whose purpose was to study climate change and rescue the Endurance, whose remains, it is estimated, remain at about 3,000 meters of depth), experienced “the authentic desolation of the place, its inaccessibility and the continuous variation and threat of the ice sheet. I was able to verify the isolation of the Endurance during its drift, and the impact its sinking must have had on Shackleton’s men. “
Endurance and The Great White Silence. The Antarctic Photographs of Frank Hurley, Herbert Ponting and Captain Scott. Atlas Gallery. London. Until February 27th.