A century ago, a group of British explorers led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out to reach the South Pole, only to find that a Norwegian team had planted its flag there several weeks earlier. Scott and his four men never made it back, succumbing to cold, starvation and exhaustion. But photographer Herbert Ponting, who accompanied them through much of their Antarctic journey, captured the region and its explorers in striking detail.
The Public Domain Review features many of Ponting’s photographs. An accompanying article by Max Jones, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Manchester, argues that those images are at least partly responsible for keeping Scott’s reputation alive for so long:
Ponting exposed around 25,000 feet of film and 2,000 photographic negatives in the Antarctic. Rarely, if ever, has an expedition been documented so thoroughly and so beautifully. Publishers and film-makers today can be confident of the availability of rich visual resources for any new Scott project, with striking photographs of the central characters, wild life and Antarctic environment. Ponting frequently juxtaposed awe-inspiring natural features with tiny human figures, presenting the Antarctic as a medieval fortress besieged by brave polar knights.
Here are a few images and some of Ponting’s own commentary about the expedition:
In his 1922 book, The Great White South; being an account of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition and of the nature life of the Arctic, Ponting recalls seeing the above iceberg grotto for the first time: “A fringe of long icicles hung at the entrance of the grotto, and passing under these, I was in the most wonderful place imaginable,” he writes. “From outside, the interior appeared quite white and colorless, but, once inside, it was a lovely symphony of blue and green.”
Ponting explains how he dressed the part of an Antarctic photographer: “I took every care to guard against cold myself. In zero weather I wore four pairs of woollen socks, and one pair of heavy goat-hair ski socks. I wrapped dried saenne grass round these, and over all wore a pair of finnesko, or Norwegian mocassins made from the leg fur of reindeer. I wore two suits of thick ‘Wolsey’ woollen underwear; thick corduroy breeches and puttees; a heavy woollen guernsey, a thick woollen coat and a flannel-lined leather coat; a woolen wrapper and a sealskin fur helmet. On my hands I wore a pair of woollen mits and thick dog-fur mits reaching almost to the elbows.”
Of course, such a snug wardrobe wasn’t always practical: “When working the camera I would remove both pairs of mits until my hands began to chill in the woollen gloves; then bury them again in the warm fur and beat them together until they glowed again,” Ponting writes. “But my fingers often became so numbed that I had to nurse them back to life by thrusting my hands inside my clothing, in contact with the warm flesh.
Protecting flesh and equipment were two key challenges in the cold. For example, wrote Ponting, “There was sometimes a difference of more than one hundred degreees between the exterior and interior temperature. To bring cameras inside was to subject them to such condensation that they became dripping wet as they came into the warm air.”
By November 1912 it was time for Ponting to say goodbye to Scott and the small crew that would finish the trek to the Pole. “I was anxious to accompany the Polar Party as far as possible; but Captain Scott explained that it would be quite impossible to transport my heavy apparatus,” Ponting writes. “Every ounce that could be carried on the sledges, other than camping equipment, would be food.”
On that day, “It was very cold and a biting wind was blowing; and ice and sky mingled in the South, into which the foremost units of the caravan were rapidly disappearing. On the bosom of that vast wilderness of ice, I could think only of the unknown perils and hardships that lay ahead of them,” Ponting writes. “They were destined never to return from the heart of the Great Alone.”