Breaking new ground to capture Antarctic expedition in pictures
with Annrachael Harwood from The Wilson Art Gallery & Museum, Cheltenham
WE had no difficulty selecting one of our many objects and photographs – from the 250,000 we hold – for this week’s column.
It had to be something including snow and the upcoming Wilson Film season.
That led me to this wonderful photograph of Herbert Ponting.
Ponting was selected by Captain Scott to join his Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic – the first official photographer to the southern continent, but also on any such scientific expedition.
Shackleton subsequently took Frank Hurley on the Endurance and you can see his amazing photographs in the Enduring Eye exhibition, showing at the Wilson until February 24.
Ponting was one of the oldest members of the Terra Nova expedition. Talented and experienced, and had a wide range of commissions and jobs before he joined the ship.
He worked as a miner and fruit grower in the United States before turning to photography and covering wars and other events across Asia.
As well as still photographs, Ponting was interested in the moving image.
Scott was an innovator, and took Ponting as he wanted to pursue the possibilities photography gave for scientific and geographical recording.
He had used the medium on the Discovery expedition but not to any great extent.
Ponting worked alongside Edward Wilson, who was recording similar material through his sketches and watercolours.
Ponting regarded himself as a camera artist and documented just about every aspect of expedition life, from the time the Terra Nova left Britain in 1910 until he returned on the ship 14 months later.
His attention to detail and the much slower shutter speeds of the period meant that he took his time taking a photograph.
His human subjects gave vent to much muttering. so much so the team members came up with a phrase for the experience – to pont, referring to keeping still for a long time.
Photographic film was available but Ponting preferred to use plate glass negatives.
In the hut and ship where he needed extra light, he worked with the rather temperamental magnesium-based flash candles – I imagine these caused some comments and interesting experiences.
He trained several expedition members, including Scott, geologist Frank Debenham and Henry Bowers, who organised the well-known images of the Scott party at the South Pole.
Ponting returned home with 1,700 photographic plates and the first moving image from the continent.
The plan was for Ponting to assemble lecture slides, and when Scott returned, the pair of them were going to set up a series of talks and performances to raise the money to cover the outstanding debt on the expedition.
This never happened as Scott did not return, but Ponting did give lectures in London.
He also released the movie film the Great White Silence in 1922, a unique record of the expedition.
The British Film Institute restored it for the centenary of the expedition and you have an opportunity to watch it at the Wilson on February 23 as part of our film festival.
What more appropriate place to see Wilson and his fellow explorers than in the town of his birth in the museum bearing his name?