The recent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery was truly a step back into a different age, a world long vanished, and a world-view long since disappeared. The Heart of the Great Beyond gives an insight into the feats achieved and hardships endured by two great explorers and their crews during the great age of Antarctic exploration in the early twentieth century, but it also begs the question: Why?
The exhibition is focused on two journeys, the doomed attempt by Captain Scott to be the first to reach the North Pole, and the later attempt by Ernest Shackleton to cross the entire Antarctic continent. The stories are truly epic in the telling, and the pictures on display are beyond superlative, excellently documenting the travels and travails of these hardy men.
Like the two explorers, the two different trip photographers were two very different men. The photographer on Scott’s voyage, Herbert Ponting, was the first professional photographer to officially accompany an Antarctic expedition. He had a passion for the art of photography, and was particularly delighted with the rich palette presented by the light on ice and snow.
The photographs on display in this exhibition showcase many facets of his art, from the comical penguin portraits through to amazing landscape compositions, most notably in his Grotto in an iceberg. While these compositions are beautiful, it does seem a little unfair to highlight his appreciation of the colours on display when, due to the contemporary inability to take true colour likenesses, the photographs on display are mainly black and white, with the occasional use of coloured paper such as Cirrus clouds over the Barne glacier. One of Ponting’s greatest feats is to capture the sheer scale of the landscape in which Scott’s crew was moving, foregrounding tiny figures against massive escarpments of rock to emphasise the astounding nature of the task they all faced.
Beauty aside, there will always be another side to any exhibition about Scott, and that is the nature of his untimely end. In a small antechamber off one corner of the Scott exhibit is a collection of portraits of the five doomed men who formed the final polar party. It is a sad, sobering room, with its five faces so full of life, sadder by far than the photographs of the team’s final resting place that end this section of the exhibition. Reading through the literature and looking at these photos, one can’t help pondering on Scott’s many strange choices; ponies and manpower rather than sled-dogs, the poorly laid supply depots, the last minute decision to include an extra man in his push for the pole. One also cannot help but wonder at what compelled the others to follow on this mission, and will never know.
Shackleton’s ordeal on-board the Endurance seems like a breath of fresh air after Scott’s fate, and there could have been no-one better to record it than Frank Hurley. As the exhibition suggests, Hurley was a more documentary photographer than Ponting, although many of his pictures still capture the wonderful beauty of the Antarctic landscape. His photographs detail every aspect of the 1914 expedition, from the dogs the explorers used and the penguins they skinned, through the months trapped in pack ice, to the final break for the shore and Shackleton’s triumphant return to rescue his men.
These pictures capture the scrubbing, starving, frightening minutiae of life on board the endurance, but at the same time images such as The Endurance in the garb of winter maintain an iconic status that is solely due to the photographer’s skill, and it is a shame that of the more than 500 photographs taken, Ponting was only able to salvage 120 after the loss of the endurance. Who knows, perhaps they may still be sunk somewhere under the new layers of sheet ice.
Studying the photographs in this exhibition, one feels the ponderous weight of history crushing down, almost as the pack is pressed down on the ships of Shackleton and Scott. One hundred years on, Anttarctica is still an intimidating place, although advances in technology and a greater understanding has led to new discoveries and year round habitation.
However, studying these photographs from a century ago, you still have to wonder what drove these men to such lengths, wrapped in little more than seal skins and reindeer fur? If it was personal fame and fortune, how did they inspire their men to follow them into the unknown? Was there any great unifying goal they were working towards? The exhibition begs more questions than it answers, but it does so in such beautiful terms that, even now, one has to stop a moment and look in awe.