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Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Heart of the Great Alone

This morning I went to ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’, a look at the achievements of Captains Scott and Shackleton through the photographers’ lens. This engrossing exhibition opened on Friday at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and will run all the way through to 15 April 2012.

"Castle Berg" - they returned to this berg several times. [Photo by: Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The structure of the exhibition encourages the visitor to play ‘spot the difference’ between Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s Endeavour expedition, as the photographs from each were displayed in separate sections, largely chronologically. The majority of the photographs on display were taken by Herbert Ponting and by Frank Hurley, respectively. Both were professional photographers of considerable experience and skill, but they were employed in subtly different capacities, which showed in their results.

Captain Scott had taken on Ponting as a ‘camera artist’, so the emphasis was on artful composition and capturing the imagination. This was the first time a professional photographer’s role was included on an official expedition’s payroll, mostly because Captain Scott had seen how popular the Discovery expedition photos had been with the public, and he was keen to capitalise on this interest. This was a prescient move, given the landslide of critical acclaim for Ponting’s film ‘The Great White Silence’, though Captain Scott himself never saw how his foresight bore fruit.

The silvery glint of the moon on the sea as it freezes [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

In contrast, Hurley was taken on as a documentarian; to chronicle the narrative of Shackleton’s venture. Hurley’s shots have a more rapid-fire, forensic quality than Ponting’s, though both rose to the exigencies of Antarctic conditions with ingenuity: Hurley’s flashlit study of HMS Endeavour trapped in the ice is a spectral portrait reminiscent of the Mary Celeste.

These photographs were given as a gift to King George V shortly after the First World War, and have been in the Royal Collection since then. It struck me how familiar so many of the photographs are; how they’ve slipped into the public parlance of what Antarctica ‘looks like’. I’m not clear whether the photographs are held in the collection  as negatives or prints, but it was impossible not to notice that Ponting’s folio offerings dwarfed Hurley’s quartos, with obvious implications on how prominently I can remember whose photos!

Ponting thought carefully about what development treatments to give each print, often choosing carbon or silver gelatine on white backing, but he would shift the ink chromaticity towards red or green, or even print on coloured card to hint at the colours he saw.

It’s clear from Captain Scott’s journals that the expedition plans would bend to accommodate Ponting’s compositional wishes, even influencing the precise position of campsites, but Ponting was never taken on extended trips across the ice, as Hurley was.

'The ramparts of Mt Erebus' [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The standout print for me is one titled ‘The ramparts of Mt Erebus’, which ticks the ‘rule of thirds’ box vertically: topmost is Erebus itself; the middle is a colossal stack of ice and the squashed bottom is ground level, including a toy soldier-like figure for scale. It reminds me of a late ancient Egyptian portrait device, where the majority of the picture would be the main story itself (the crushing majesty of nature, in this case) and the painter would be indulged with a miniature of an icon in the corner (often taken from the painter’s life) as a reminder of man’s insignificance.

Have you been to see this show? What did you think?


As you might know, I'm off to Alta, Norway soon and have been humming with excitement for weeks. My rucksack's packed now and there's just four clear days between me and Norway. Can't. Wait.

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About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.