David Clark tells the story behind one of the earliest and greatest pictures of Antarctic exploration

Image: The Cavern in the iceberg,Terra Nova in the distance © Royal Geographical Society


When the British Antarctic Expedition set sail from
Cardiff on board the Terra Nova on 15 June 1910, its members knew they
were embarking on a potentially dangerous voyage. Led by Robert Falcon
Scott, its objective was, in his words, ‘to reach the South Pole and to
secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement’.

Reaching
the South Pole was, at this time, at the limits of what could be
achieved in human exploration and the race was on to be the first there.
Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition had failed to reach the South
Pole in 1909, and in 1910 other countries, including Japan and
Australia, were planning similar attempts. Furthermore, later in the
journey, Scott was informed that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s
expedition was also on its way to the South Pole.

Among the crew
members on board the Terra Nova as it headed to Antarctica was Herbert
George Ponting. He had been born into a wealthy English family in 1870
and, after a brief career in banking, had emigrated to America in the
1890s. He later invested in fruit farming and gold mining before taking
up photography in 1900.

He went on to have a successful career as
a freelance photographer for magazines, newspapers and book publishers,
and travelled widely, particularly in Europe and Asia. His flair for
creating technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing travel
images that told the story of a journey led Scott to recruit him as the
expedition’s official photographer.

Although many photographers
were shooting on film by 1910, Ponting chose to use a glass-plate camera
because, although especially cumbersome in extreme conditions, it
produced images of superior quality. His brief was to shoot both still
and moving images (for the latter he used an early portable camera
called a cinematograph) that recorded crew members on the voyage and the
natural wonders they encountered.

Ponting helped set up the
winter camp at Cape Evans on Ross Island. After building a small
darkroom in the hut, Ponting set about his task. He took a lot of pride
in his work and made great efforts to compose (and often carefully pose)
his pictures. They included scenes of the crew’s everyday lives, images
of the region’s seals and penguin colonies, and dramatic photographs of
icebergs.

The most visually stunning location was photographed by
Ponting in early January 1911. It was a naturally formed cavern in an
iceberg that had a swirling, textured interior surface. ‘It was about a
mile from the ship, and although a lot of rough and broken ice
surrounded it, I was able to get right up to it,’ Ponting wrote in The
Great White South.

Image: A Berg with a large grotto © Royal Geographical Society

‘A
fringe of long icicles hung at the entrance of the grotto, and passing
under these I was in the most wonderful place imaginable. From outside,
the interior appeared quite white and colourless, but, once inside, it
was a lovely symphony of blue and green.I found that the colouring of
the grotto changed with the position of the Sun; thus, sometimes green
would predominate, then blue, and then again it was a delicate lilac.

‘When
the Sun passed round to the west – opposite the entrance to the cavern -
the beams that streamed in were reflected by myriads of crystals, which
decomposed the rays into lovely prismatic hues, so that the walls
appeared to be studded with gems.’

Ponting photographed it from
the inside, looking out towards the Terra Nova in the distance, and in
one version he asked his colleagues Thomas Griffith Taylor and Charles
Wright to pose in the grotto to give an indication of its scale. He also
photographed the grotto from the ice sheet, looking back towards it
(see image above).

Ponting’s best photograph of the grotto showed
it without the figures (see image above). This simple composition
allowed him to concentrate purely on the ice formations and the distant
ship. It was a spectacular scene and one that perfectly captured both
the strangeness of the Antarctic landscape and the isolation of the
Terra Nova and her crew.

When Scott and other key expedition
members pushed on for their journey to the South Pole in November 1911,
it was agreed that Ponting and several others should remain at the camp.
They finally left in February 1912. Meanwhile, Scott, together with his
colleagues Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans,
reached the South Pole to find that Amundsen had arrived more than a
month earlier. Tragically, Scott’s group died from exposure and
malnutrition on the return journey.

In the years that followed,
Ponting toured the UK giving lectures on his experiences and dedicated
himself to preserving the memory of Scott’s epic journey. His book, The
Great White South, was published in 1921 and his film, The Great White
Silence, was released in 1924. However, the latter years of his life
were spent pursuing various unsuccessful ventures and he died in 1935,
aged 64.

His photographic archive of Scott’s expedition, which
includes more than 1,000 still images, is a fascinating collection.
However, Grotto in an Iceberg remains the iconic image of the voyage; it
goes beyond being a mere documentary photograph and is a beautiful work
of art in itself. In the words of contemporary explorer David
Hempleman-Adams, Ponting’s photograph is ‘as significant an image as
Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon for the first time.’


Image: Herbert Ponting and telephoto apparatus © Royal Geographical Society

Events 1910-20

  • 1910: King Edward VII dies and is succeeded by George V
  • 1912:
    The RMS Titanic hits an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean on her maiden
    voyage. The ship sinks and 1,517 people lose their lives
  • 1913: Emily
    Davison, a member of the suffragette movement, is knocked down by the
    King’s horse during the Epsom Derby and dies four days later
  • 1914: German troops invade Belgium and in turn Britain declares war on Germany, marking the beginning of the First World War
  • 1916: Between July and November, more than a million soldiers are killed during the Battle of the Somme in northern France
  • 1917:
    In Russia, Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin leads the October Revolution, which
    results in the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a
    Communist state
  • 1918: The First World War ends with Germany signing an armistice agreement with the Allies
  • 1918-20: The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic causes the deaths of millions of people worldwide
  • 1919: In the US, President Theodore Roosevelt dies of a heart attack in his sleep, aged 60

Books and websites

Books
and DVDs:
A collection of Ponting’s photographs, With Scott to the
Pole: Terra Nova Expedition 1910-1913, can be bought second-hand on
www.amazon.co.uk. Ponting’s documentary film of Scott’s journey to the
South Pole, The Great White Silence, is available on DVD.

Exhibition:
The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic
Photography is a collection of photographs taken in Antarctica by
Herbert George Ponting and Frank Hurley. It’s on show at The Queen’s
Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA, until 15 April. Tel: 0207
766 7301.

Websites: More of Ponting’s polar expedition images can
be seen at the Scott Polar Research Institute website,
www.spriprints.com, and on the Royal Geographical Society website,
www.images.rgs.org