The Great White South

March 30, 2010 | By Sarah McDonald | Archive

Thought last month was chilly? Well imagine spending 14 grueling months living in sub zero temperatures in the Antarctic. This is what photographer and cinematographer Herbert Ponting signed on for one hundred years ago when he joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s scientific expedition to the South Pole as the official ‘camera artist’. Today the Terra Nova expedition, 1910 – 1912, is synonymous with Scott’s failed attempt on the South Pole (Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat him to it by over a month) and the poor decisions (such as the use of motor sleds and ponies) that led to Scott and his party tragically perishing from cold and malnutrition.

H.G. Ponting, Captain Scott+s Antarctic Expedition 1910 – 1912, 13th December, 1910, The -Terra Nova ship held up in the pack ice with an ice bollard in the foreground.

However the 41-year-old Ponting was already on a ship home before Scott’s polar party had even left camp. In that first year he’d taken over 1,000 photographs and reels of film processed in a self built darkroom-cum-bedroom on Ross Ice Shelf and, in doing so, achieved a number of firsts – the first professional photographer attached to such an expedition and first to use both colour plates (autochromes) and moving footage in the Antarctic. To modern eyes the expedition’s party, in their homely knitted jumpers, seal skin mittens  and knocked-together camp, look woefully ill-equipped for such an extreme environment.

H.G. Ponting. Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition 1910 – 1912. 8th October, 1911. The tenements-bunk beds in the hut of Lieutenant Bowers, Cherry-Garrard, Captain Oates, Mr. Meares and Dr. Atkinson.

Ponting diligently recorded their lives of scientific study and experimentation, along with endless pictures of sled dogs, penguins and the doomed ponies, right down to some shameless product placement for sponsors back home.

A member of the team tucks into a tin of Heinz baked beans in the Ross Dependency, during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic, January 1912.

But it is those surreal barren landscapes, fantastic snow castles, glistening grottos and translucent ice caverns, under bleak, cloud streaked skies that hang in the memory and thrill the mind.

H.G. Ponting, Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition 1910 – 1912, 17th September, 1911, A dog sleigh sits in front of the huge ice castle berg.


Geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880 – 1963) and meteorologist Charles Wright (1887 – 1975) in the entrance to an ice grotto during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic. 5th January 1911. The ‘Terra Nova’ is in the background.

When news of Scott’s defeat and death reached the world Ponting dedicated his life to ensuring he would not be forgotten, producing a book, short film and touring lectures from his material. Although his ventures were a personal and commercial failure the Scott Polar Research Institute was established in 1920 from public funds and today it is Scott’s British bulldog heroics we remember over Amundsen’s well-planned triumph.

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