Monday, March 21, 2011

Iconic Monday: Herbert Ponting and the Doomed Scott Expedition

Grotto in an Iceberg, Scott Expedition, by Herbert Ponting
 Amid all the photography and art at last week's AIPAD show in New york, it was the Heroic Age of Antarctice Adventure that captured my heart. Specifically, it was work by the photographer Herbert Ponting featured by the Steven Kasher Gallery (New York) and the Flo Peters Gallery (Hamburg) that knocked me out. One hundred years after Robert Falcon Scott led his doomed expedition to Antarctica, Ponting's images from the epic adventure are worth discovering.

Lawrence Oates by Ponting
Ponting's portrait of Charles Seymour Wright
 Like the images of the Ernest Shackleton Expedition, which were featured a few years ago in Caroline Alexander's marvelous book The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctice Adventure, Ponting's photographs of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and the South Pole bring to life an era of human questing as poignant as that of early manned space flight. Ponting's work was to have been the visual centerpiece of Scott's triumphant return from the Pole; instead, it was the tragic fate of the expedition that became the stuff of legend, while Ponting's documentation went largely by the wayside. Now it seems to be taking its rightful place in the history of art.

Captain Scott in His Den, by Ponting
 Ponting himself was a romantic by nature; born in England in 1870, he was enthralled by tales of the American West and eventually moved to California, where he tried his hand as a fruit rancher. The business failed so he took up photography, which seems to have fulfilled his need to tell thrilling tales. He documented the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 then continued traveling through the Far East and India. His images appeared in the mass market magazines that were making their appearance at the time—publications like Strand Magazine, home of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories—and his growing renown led to Ponting's appointment as the photographer for Scott's much-anticipated second expedition to Antarctica. Ponting sailed on Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, and in 1911 helped set up the expedition's winter camp on Ross Island. Ponting documented the men and the scientific work of the expedition on glass plates, which he processed in a darkroom set up at the camp. The quality of the negatives was stunning, if the prints shown at the AIPAD are any indication.

Ponting wasn't part of the Scott party that later set out for South Pole; after spending 14 months in the Antarctic, he returned home with a number of other men and began to prepare his images for the lecture tour Scott was going to give when he returned, after becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. The images were vital for Scott—he had borrowed considerable funds to pay for the expedition, and he expected to pay off the loans in part with a series of lectures featuring lantern slides of Ponting's work.

Scott did reach the Pole, on January 17, 1912, only to discover that a rival team led by Roald Amundsen had been there before him. He'd been slowed down because of his unwise choice to use use horses rather than dogs to pull his sleds: When the horses succumbed to the harsh environment, his men had had to haul the heavy sleds themselves. Worse, he miscalculated the amount of food the men would need. On their return from the Pole, the team began to starve. There was heroic self-sacrifice—expedition member Lawrence Oates famously walked from his tent into a blizzard saying, "I am just going outside and may be some time"—but Scott and his team nonetheless perished after making a desperate but futile dash for food supplies they had cached; their bodies were discovered in November, 1912, by a party led by Charles Seymour Wright, a member of the Terra Nova expedition not included on the dash to the Pole. Also found was Scott's diary, which became a literary sensation when it was published. Compared to the grand tragedy of Scott's words, Ponting's pictures, which instead told a story of intrepid success, were beside the point and largely ignored. Then in 1914 World War I began, and the piece of history that Ponting had recorded slipped away from view. In journalism as in art, timing is everything.

Ponting Self-Portrait
Ponting did publish his Antarctica work in 1921 to popular acclaim, and he helped make a short film with footage he shot at Scott's winter camp. He traveled and lectured, but the world moved on. Ponting died in London in 1935. Now, through the means of an art show on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, his story is being retold.

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