In 1911, Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the Antarctic. This was the second time he was sailing South. His first, Discovery Expedition a few years earlier, allowed him to break a historical record: no one had every ventured so close to the South Pole. On his return, Scott was celebrated as a hero, but he wouldn’t rest on his laurels. The dawn of the twentieth century saw a race to the South Pole: the Antarctic was the last uncharted area on earth, the virgin land, terra incognita. The question was who would be the first to set foot upon the geographical South Pole.
Scott embarked on his second crossing aboard the Terra Nova. The name of this ship was fated to a tragic fame: after being overtaken by the Norwegian expedition, which was first to reach the South Pole, the British captain and his crew perished on their way back. Despite its tragic end, the Terra Nova Expedition left behind the first images of the Antarctic. Captain Scott’s crew included Herbert G. Ponting, a famous photographer who took some of the shots that launched the myth of the Antarctic. These very photos are now on display at Atlas Gallery in London, from December 8, 2020 until January 31, 2021. “Even without his Antarctic expedition, Ponting would have been one of the greatest landscape photographers of the twentieth century. From a photography point of view, his images are among the best landscape photographs of the past century,” noted Ben Burdett, the founder of Atlas Gallery.
Unable, due to his age, to complete the expedition, Ponting left the Terra Nova in 1912, thus escaping death. However, he had taught his art to Captain Scott who would himself document the exhibition after the photographer’s departure. His photos are also a part of the exhibition Endurance and the Great White Silence at Atlas Gallery. Ponting’s and Scott’s photos have fashioned the image of the Antarctic for the general public. They showed for the first time the vast white expanses, a land of fantasy. They also offered a glimpse into the everyday life of these men who, driven by the desire to explore the farthest reaches of the earth, braved the elements and trudged on, unknowingly, to their death.
Several years after the Terra Nova Expedition, Ernest Shackleton, another leading figure of what came to be known as the heroic age of exploration in the Antarctic, launched an expedition aboard the Endurance. His crew included the Australian photographer Frank Hurley. “Hurley was freer than Ponting: he was a pioneer of photo-reporting. His best-known image of the Endurance at night is wholly modernist, editorial. Ponting wouldn’t have taken such an image,” observed Burdett.
The Endurance also faced a calamity. Locked in ice, the ship sank and the crew barely escaped with their lives. The story of these men who, having abandoned their vessel, drifted in icy water for five days before reaching land, is one of the most edifying survival stories in history. And everything took place under Hurley’s keen gaze, “a warrior armed with a camera,” in the words of one his crewmates, ready to risk his life to get the perfect composition. This love of danger created an impressive and unique record. Ponting’s, Scott’s, and Hurley’s photos offer varied perspectives on some of the greatest adventures of the modern age. The landscapes photos have a vertiginous quality: they reveal the vast expanses of a land yet to be conquered. The portraits, on the other hand, show a touching sense of human closeness.
The exhibition, bringing together the work of three men, is of interest to historians and photographers alike. But that’s not all. The photos chronicle great polar expeditions of the past century, and thus offer insights into the instinct of conquest we all possess in some measure. We can identify with the love of adventure that has launched some of the greatest human endeavors, from the Homo Sapiens migrating from Africa to space travel. What is there at the end of the world? Some are ready to put their lives on the line to find out. The exhibition Endurance and the Great White Silence at Atlas Gallery allows us to relive their life stories.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and Lebanese content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
Endurance and the Great White Silence
The Antarctic Photographs of Frank Hurley, Herbert Ponting and Captain Scott
December 8, 2020 to January 30, 2021
49 Dorset Street
London W1U 7NF