Adventurers’ view from the ends of the earth

Images of Shackleton’s and Scott’s Antarctic expeditions are as moving now as they were 100 years ago

When Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off to become the first man to reach the South Pole, there was no satnav to guide him. Back in 1910, he and his crew had no idea whether the journey could actually be done. As they would discover when their ill-fated mission finally got to its destination, not only could it be done, it had been done one month earlier by a Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, who had narrowly beaten them to it.

Although all five members of Scott’s party died of exhaustion and starvation on the journey back, his heroic expedition earned him a place in history. Next year marks the centenary of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and to celebrate, a collection of photography from the trip will be on show in Edinburgh, alongside photos from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition two years later.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography features a stunning selection of images from two albums that were presented to King George V. Taken by Herbert George Ponting and Frank Hurley, they now form part of the Royal Photograph Collection at Windsor Castle, which is curated by Sophie Gordon. Although she cherry-picked the hundred or so photographs that would be included in the exhibition, one of her favourite items on display is not a photo, but a Union Jack flag.

“To me, it’s one of the star items of the show,” she explains. The flag was given to Scott by Queen Alexandra before he set off, and there are photos of him posing next to it when he reached the South Pole. “Then, of course, the flag was found months later by a search party, in the tent, next to their frozen dead bodies. It was brought home and returned to Queen Alexandra by Lady Scott. To think that flag has been to the South Pole and made it home after all that makes it a very moving object to me.”

As well as recording the huge empty landscapes that Scott and Shackleton found themselves navigating through, the photos also show the penguins, seals, gulls, pack dogs and football matches that kept the men entertained along the way. “There’s a sense of the day-to-day activities of the men, particularly in Hurley’s narrative shots,” says Gordon. “We see the men telling each other stories and cleaning floors, while Ponting seemed to produce more powerful, dramatic works of art.”

The two albums not only capture two different explorers — Scott and Shackleton had trekked together across the Antarctic several years earlier, and now viewed each other as rivals — but also reveal two very different photographers at work. Ponting, who joined Scott’s expedition, was a travel photographer with an excellent reputation, and the first official photographer to accompany a polar expedition. Although his Terra Nova photos brought him fame, he was so affected by what he had experienced in Antarctica, he didn’t undertake any new work after coming home and spent the rest of his career lecturing about the photos.

“Those images were so important in building the legend of Scott as a national hero, and also establishing photography as a vital part of Antarctic exploration,” says Gordon. “By the time Hurley joined Shackleton on Endurance, they’d seen the impact that Ponting’s images had. That’s why when it came to choosing between carrying food or Hurley’s negatives, they threw food overboard.”

Just over a year after leaving Buenos Aires for Antarctica in 1914, Endurance became stuck in ice, “like an almond in toffee”, according to one of the crew. Pressure from the ice floes pushed the ship onto its side, and eventually caused a leak which sank it a month later. Shackleton realised the crew would have to continue on foot, and ordered the men to carry only 2lbs of kit per person. To set an example, he threw down his own gold watch, gold coins and copy of the Bible, which had been given to him by Queen Alexandra, onto the ice. Since Hurley’s glass negative plates were so heavy, Shackleton and Hurley sorted through more than 500 plates, and smashed 400 of them there and then, as well as his cinematograph machine for moving images. A total of 120 plates were brought home, plus a pocket camera Hurley used to take pictures on Elephant Island, where he and part of the crew were marooned for over four months.

Hurley himself was a bit of an action man — a brave, hands-on photo-journalist, who was happy to climb the ship’s rigging for a good view of the icescapes, or plunge himself into icy water to retrieve his negatives. In the words of Endurance’s first officer, Lionel Greenstreet: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera and would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.”

The Australian photographer, who had curly hair, a husky voice and loved to swear, was determined to bring home good photos, to the point where he often ignored the danger he and the crew might be in to concentrate solely on the views, which he described in his diary as “charming”, “gorgeous” and “beautiful”. Some of Hurley’s most famous and breathtaking photos were taken as the ship was slowly sinking. Unlike Ponting’s images, Hurley was keen to build up a reportage sequence with a beginning, middle and end. When he failed to capture the moment when Shackleton returned months later to rescue the crew from Elephant Island, Hurley took an older image of Shackleton waving goodbye to the crew months earlier, added smoke and a rescue beacon, and made it look as if they were waving hello instead.

“If you look closely at two images in particular, it’s obvious they have been scratched or painted over,” says Gordon.

To Gordon, both Ponting and Hurley’s photos retain the same emotional impact now as 100 years ago. After first seeing Ponting’s photos, King George V expressed a hope that, “it might be possible for every British boy to see the pictures — as the story of the Scott expedition could not be known too widely among the youth of the nation, for it would help to promote the spirit of adventure that had made the Empire.”

“It’s just such a gripping story,” says Gordon, who has spent the past two years researching the photos to co-author a book that accompanies the exhibition. “I still get very moved when I see some of the images. You follow the story, and then you realise none of them survived. The stone cairn over the tent where they found Scott’s body, I still find it heartbreaking,” she laughs. “I hope the photos have the same impact on other people who come to see them.”

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography will be at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, October 2 — April 11 2010. Go here to find out more about the exhibition and to look at the photos.