When rescuers found the frozen bodies of three members of the 1910–1914 British Antarctic Expedition camped eleven miles from the nearest food depot, it had been almost a year since the explorers had died. Outside the tent, all that remained of the sledge they had man-hauled for the 850-mile journey to the magnetic South Pole was a single bamboo mast. Inside, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Chief Scientific Officer Edward Wilson were covered head to toe by their sleeping bags, “as if asleep.” The leader of the expedition, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, had his coat slightly open, his arm stretched out across Wilson, his closest companion on the expedition. Among the belongings recovered were Scott’s three diaries, which he maintained until the end, and some undeveloped photographs.
The last uncharted continent on earth, Antarctica’s landmass had been penetrated only a few times. Scott himself had come within 460 miles of the South Pole during his first expedition launched in 1901. His second and final attempt, begun in 1910, had been one of three South Pole expeditions undertaken that year. Choku Shirase, an admiral in the Japanese navy, turned back because of harsh weather. Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who originally set out to conquer the North Pole, changed course mid-sea on hearing that the American flag had been planted there April 6, 1909. He cabled Scott, already southbound: “Beg leave to inform you preceding Antarctica.” Amundsen eventually beat Scott to the Pole by 34 days.
Out of the 100 applicants to be his expedition’s photographic officer, Scott chose Herbert G. Ponting, who fit the bill as a professional and seasoned traveler. Born in 1870 to a wealthy banker in Salisbury, England, Ponting left home at 22 and headed for the American West. After a failed fruit orchard enterprise and bad investments in gold-mining, he abandoned his San Francisco wife and their two children to pursue a life of adventure as what he called a “camera artist.”
According to scholar Dennis Lynch, Ponting “took up photography seriously in 1900,” quickly gaining recognition for his work. He won Bausch and Lomb’s World Prize, and his “Mules at a California Roundup” went on display as part of the Kodak exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair. When a stereopticon company hired him to provide pictures for its viewing machines, he traveled the world taking images of places heard-of but unseen by many in the West: Burma, China, India, Japan, Java, Korea, Manchuria, Russia. In 1904, he was accredited by the First Japanese Army to photograph the Russo-Japanese War for Harper’s Weekly, and, in 1905, he was admitted into the Royal Geographical Society. His images of landscapes and domestic life, often accompanied by his own travelogue commentary, were published in commercial magazines, then proliferating thanks to efficient new printing presses. The day he left London for Antarctica, copies of his first major book, In Lotus-land Japan, arrived at his door.
Ponting was a fastidious photographer. Even as roll film had been in use since its invention in 1889, he, like other professionals, preferred the cumbersome glass plates, which produced higher quality images. The expedition crew often complained about how long it took Ponting to photograph, and some were hurt in falls suffered while posing. The expedition’s geologist Griffith Taylor invented the verb “to pont,” meaning “to pose until nearly frozen in all sorts of uncomfortable positions.” (The penguins Ponting disturbs in their nesting grounds might have come up with another definition.) Ponting’s own memoir is filled with regret over missed opportunities, lamenting his failure to capture the detail and scale of an enormous tabular iceberg, the Arch Berg that collapsed too soon, the colorful play of light in the Grotto, the aurora australis. Scott recalled in his diaries that Ponting’s frustrations often echoed throughout the hut: “The noise of breaking glass in his darkroom was not uncommon, and usually heralded his reappearance, laden with cameras, once more, to go and take his subject over again.”
To help fund the expedition, the rights to Ponting’s film footage were pre-sold to Gaumont. Ponting had never before operated a movie camera. To prepare for the task, he took lessons from Arthur Newman of Newman-Sinclair, which supplied one of the two motion picture cameras that became part of Ponting’s 200-pound photography kit. In addition to the basic issue of survival in Antarctica’s harsh climate, Ponting confronted challenges particular to polar photography. Dennis Lynch describes the hardships: “Camera lubricants froze; film had to be wound very slowly to prevent static electric sparks; and with a 100° difference of temperature between inside and outside the hut, condensation (and the subsequent freezing of the water produced on the inside of the camera) was a serious problem. The equipment had to be stored outside the hut. The frozen film had to be thawed very slowly before use to prevent condensation; the elaborate process took two days.”
All told, he came away with more than 1,000 glass-plate photographs and shot 25,000 feet of nitrate film, which he had processed on the spot. (It took him two and a half hours to develop 50 feet of film.) He trained others to take still photographs for small scientific excursions and the long trek to the Pole, of which no motion pictures were shot. He staged the scenes of the select Pole expedition crew man-hauling their sledge, setting up their tent, cooking their meals. Ponting recalled Scott saying, “What fun it will be when we are home again and see this at the cinema!” In early 1912, Ponting left to avoid another polar winter, urging the remaining men to “[k]eep the photographic end up.”
Ponting’s first motion pictures screened in London in October 1911 as With Captain Scott, R.N. to the South Pole and, later in August 1912, as With Captain Scott in the Antarctic. After news of Scott’s death reached England in February 1913, Gaumont re-released the footage as The Undying Story of Captain Scott. Ponting was dissatisfied with the film and purchased back the rights for five thousand pounds. He had shot the footage in The Great White Silence at a time when the “cinema of attractions” was being eclipsed by the story film. By the time The Great White Silence was released in 1924, the fiction feature dominated at the box office and Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) had raised the bar for documentary storytelling. To expand his film into a proper feature, Ponting incorporated illustrations, models, and rudimentary stop-motion sequences as well as inserted the stills taken by the doomed men.
The expedition and its legacy came to define Ponting. He spent the rest of his professional life touring with his films and lantern slides, recounting the tale. He re-edited his film footage into a sound version, adapting his lectures for the narration, and released it in 1933 it as 90˚ South. He later considered the time spent lecturing and promoting the films a waste, even calling his decision to join the expedition “the great error of my life.” The camera artist Ponting might have preferred new subjects. Yet his images not only set new artistic standards for nature photography but also stoked the legend of Scott and his men, whose failure looms larger in our imaginations than Amundsen’s success.
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble