90° South

The Otago Museum hosted a special screening of photographer Herbert Ponting’s ‘90° South’ – a documentary featuring rare footage of Captain Robert Scott’s 1911 epic race for the South Pole.  In his introduction Grahame Sydney spoke about the achievements of expedition photographer and cinematographer Herbert Ponting. “I wrote in the Introduction to my book, “White Silence”, that if  other artists have achieved any moderate heights with their own Antarctic  work in the single century since the so-called “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration, they do so because they sit, proverbially, on the shoulders of three giants : Edward Wilson, Herbert Ponting, and Frank Hurley. Together, in the space of only a decade, these three shaped the way the world pictured the unknown continent, and still today theirs are the undisputed classics of Antarctic art : unforgettable, saturated with the romance and audacity of their adventures, and fortunately free of the rabid nationalism and egocentric battles which drove those expeditions.

Edward Wilson and  Herbert Ponting were with Robert Falcon Scott on the  dangerously overweight “Terra Nova” when they steamed away from the “very gay scene” at Port Chalmers  on 29 November, 1910, straight into a frightening southern storm, on a journey  into legend.

Wilson, the beloved and devoutly Christian “Uncle Bill” of Scott’s  final journey, of course froze to death beside his Captain  in that hopeless tent on the Barrier sixteen months after they left Port Chalmers. Wilson was above all a scientist, but he painted watercolours in the Hut, and out in the field  made careful  pencil studies in small notebooks too, more often with a scientific than aesthetic interest.

Frank Hurley,  an ebullient and practical  Australian, was on the later “Endurance” expedition with Ernest Shackleton.  He  determinedly recorded  those lonely seasons drifting slowly on the ice floes of the Weddell Sea,  the best of his  unforgettable plate photographs and flickering film of the doomed ship  preserved in a  crude tin box welded with seal blubber flux. He then survived the unimaginable awfulness of  the  miserable, despairing months on Elephant Island.

Hurley was an  inexhaustable adventurer who went on to be an official  Photographer in both World Wars, married an Anglo-French opera singer   10 days after meeting her,  made movies, and was a very successful publisher before he died in 1962.

But it is the remarkable Mr Ponting we are here to see tonight – and we will see him in person, introduced by  the second in command of the British Antarctic Expedition, Teddy Evans, and speaking about his own film of the “Terra Nova” expedition. Ponting was not there to witness that tragedy of the loss of the Polar Party or its aftermath : he was already safely home when the shocking news of those deaths reached Britain.

Herbert Ponting  joined “Terra Nova” late, in New Zealand, and from the outset was regarded as something of an oddity –  imbued with a gentleman’s manners, yet never quite a team player, and while not humourless, extracting a smile from him was considered by his hutmates to be a tough task.

The ship and the ice were a far cry from his habitual comfort zone – he was from a wealthy English family, accustomed to maids and servants. He tried banking, as required by his father, but gave it up early and sailed to California aged 23, married the daughter of an American General, purchased a fruit farm and invested in a gold mine. Setting a troubling precedent for many of his commercial judgments, both were failures.

In the  book of his Antarctic photographs published a decade later later Ponting wrote of his life before the trip South, “ My life – save for six years mining and ranching in western America; a couple of voyages around the world; three years of travel in Japan; some months as a war correspondent with the First Japanese Army during the war with Russia, and in the Phillippines during the American war with Spain; and save, too, for several years of travel in a score of other lands – my life had been comparatively uneventful…..”

He doesn’t mention there that in 1906 he had left his wife and two young children, never to return. He said that marriage and his photographic artistry were incompatible – and photography mattered more.

He was already famous, an internationally-published photographer of real note when he joined Scott’s expedition. His book “In Lotus Land : Japan” had just been published and was proving immensely popular  in 1910, but his images of  “Terra Nova”, Ross Island and the fateful expedition would elevate him from mere fame to artistic immortality, and be the most influential of all his many adventures.

 Ponting was comfortable with both danger and fame. He considered himself not  a photographer,  but a “camera artist.”  On the ice for  14 months, he  would prove that his brilliant reputation was indeed well deserved. Treated with suspicion and curiosity at first, he quickly won the respect of most of  the  men in the Cape Evans hut for his insistent professionalism, if not for his bad banjo playing and persistently off-key singing.

Fussy, fastidious, prim and proper, he was also inventive, tireless, and  blessed with an enviable eye for an image. Although Scott mentions Ponting’s “nervous disposition”, he was patient and thoughtful in his compositions, but protective  of his  art, and often difficult : he refused to accompany the depot laying trips, or the sledging parties,  because they would be too rushed to permit the time he needed.

His work sledge, carrying  his plate camera, lenses, and cinematograph, weighed 200lbs alone. When  food and shelter against the unwelcome onset of a sudden blizzard were added for longer excursions, that work sledge weighed close to 400lbs, a  slow haul for any man, and he seldom had  the help of others, much to his irritation.

Ponting seemed unphased by danger – he  constructed  flimsy platforms out of planks on which he balanced as the ship  pushed through the sea ice, one hand holding the winding handle of the  Newman-Sinclair movie camera, the other  holding the camera itself, and Ponting teetering there projected  two metres out from the deck. Footage from that perilous vantage point appears in the film you’ll see. Photographs exist of Ponting perched out on the far end of a “Terra Nova” spar, precariously balanced, camera in hand, apparently careless of the dangers. Whatever it took to get a better shot, Ponting did it.

Sometimes – often, even – at real risk to himself.

 Early on in the expedition, I think it was the morning after the “Terra Nova’s” arrival at Cape Evans, he was very nearly unwilling fodder for a group of eight killer whales, who  took advantage of his getting too close to the ice edge, and as Scott and a few others watched in horror from a distance, came up beneath him, broke the ice he was standing on, and nearly got him.  He later wrote, “The adventure with the killer whales had been exciting enough: I had relished the thrill of it….”

But the incident which occurred just prior to the taking of one of his famous shots, “Death of an Iceberg” was, he said, “neither thrilling nor pleasurable.”

He tells the story in “The Great White South” of what happened on 7th  January 1911,  in the first week of the ship’s  tethering at Cape Evans :

“There was not so much as a zephyr astir, and the mercury stood only a few degrees below  the freezing point, as I started off once more to the bergs that were such a paradise for my work. No sound broke the stillness of the nightless night, save the occasional squawk of a penguin, or the blowing of a whale, perhaps half a dozen miles away.

“As I neared the bergs, I was perspiring freely from the effort of dragging my sledge; and the yellow goggles which I wore as protection against snow blindness, became clouded over, so I could not see. I was just about to stop to wipe them, when I felt  the ice sinking underneath me. I could not see a yard ahead because of my clouded goggles, but I felt the water wet my feet, and I heard a soft hissing sound as the ice gave way around me. I realised instantly that if the heavy sledge, to which I was harnessed, broke through, it would sink like a stone, dragging me down with it. For a moment  the impulse was to save myself by slipping out of the harness – at the expense of all my apparatus. But I went to the frozen South to illustrate its wonders, and without my cameras I was helpless. At all costs, therefore, my precious kit should be saved. I would save it, or go down with it. We would survive, or sink together.

“A flood of thoughts rushed through my brain in those fateful moments. I seemed to visualise the two hundred fathoms of water below me, infested with those devils ( the killer whales ) , and wondered how long it would take the sledge to drag me to the bottom. Would I drown,  or would an Orca snap me up before I got there ?

“Though the ice sank under my feet, it did not break; but each step I expected to be my last. The sledge, dragging through the slush, became like lead, and as the water rose above my boots I was unable to pull it further. Just then, with perspiration dripping from every pore, I felt my feet touch firm ice. With one supreme final effort, which sapped the last ounce of strength that was left, I got onto it, and managed to drag the sledge on to it too; then I collapsed. I was so completely exhausted that it was quite a long time before my trembling muscles ceased to quake. When finally my knees would hold me up, I took the photograph.”

Ponting then  diverts into a brief discussion about how quickly such “ incidents of peril” are relegated into  “the limbo of the past “  becoming “mere reminisinces,”  then describes what happened next.

“ Having taken the desired photograph, and recorded a very beautiful Polar scene, I lay down on the ice – at the edge of the pool where the reflections appear in the picture – to peer into the profundity that I had so nearly become more acquainted with. A great  shaft of sunlight pierced the depths like a searchlight, and by shading my eyes, with my head close to the water, I could see a hundred feet down into the sea, which was alive with minute creatures. As I watched, a slim, silvery fish darted by, and then a seal rushed into my field of view from the surrounding blackness – not in pursuit of the fish, but fleeing in evident terror. The cause of its terror immediately appeared. The horror hove into view without apparent effort, looking like some grim leviathan of war – a submarine; and a thing of war it really was for this seal. It was the dreaded Killer again, in close pursuit of its prey. It came so close to me that I could distinctly see the  evil gleam in its eye, and the whole outline of its sleek and sinister shape. For a single second I lay, transfixed with interest at the sight. Then I remembered…. And hurried to a safer  place.” ( p70)

Its obvious that Ponting was in his element in those first weeks on Ross Island. ( The phrase “pig in shit” comes to mind  ) : for a photographer, the  other-worldly beauty  of Antarctica was as thrilling as its inherent dangers.

 His famous  “Grotto in an Iceberg” shot was taken close to Cape Evans on January 5th. In those first few days he was working without sleep, making the most of the fine weather, and fearing  any change would destroy the bergs which so attracted him. He said,

“In one of these bergs there was a grotto. This, I decided, should be the object of my first excursion. It was about a mile from the ship, and though a lot of rough and broken ice surrounded it, I was able to get right up to it. 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 the outside the interior appeared quite white and colourless, but once inside, it was a lovely symphony of blue and green. I made many photographs in this remarkable place – than which I secured none more beautiful the entire time I was in the South.

“By almost incredible good luck the entrance to the cavern framed a fine view of the Terra Nova lying at the ice-foot, a mile away. During this first and subsequent visits, I found that the colouring of the grotto changed with the position of the sun; thus sometimes green would predominate, then blue, then again it was a delicate lilac.

“ When the the sun passed round to the west – opposite the entrance to the cavern – the beams that streamed in were reflected by the myriads of crystals, which decomposed the rays into lovely prismatic hues, so that the walls appeared studded with gems… the place became a veritable Aladdins cave of beauty. I was loathe to leave it all; but after having made sure of my pictures, I hurried back to persuade Captain Scott to come and see the sight, which he did, and was as delighted as I was with its wonders. Uncle Bill came too, and made some sketches. … a few hours later the berg had swung around many degrees in the current, and the ship was no longer able to be seen from within.”

Two days later the “Death of an Iceberg” near-drowning occurred ; Ponting was free to roam, while the other  expedition members were  busy for weeks on end unloading the “Terra Nova,” including dropping  one of the motor sledges over the side and into those same beckoning depths of McMurdo Sound. The hut was still being built, and everyone was still living on the ship.

Carting his cumbersome gear about – large boxy wooden cameras and spindly wooden tripods – wearing his distinctive hat, he was forever  preoccupied,  a lone operator in a team environment. He had a large collection of lenses, though his favourite one – a nine inch Zeiss double protar – he dropped  overboard  on his second day anchored at the Cape,  ( it was later replaced by  Bausch and Lomb Optical Company of Rochester New York ) and he habitually  sported reindeer mittens – furside on the outside in the best Hiawatha fashion– which came up to his elbows. One can see through his image sequences that he was constantly re-framing compositions, moving forward, shifting to the right or left a little, to get an even more  perfect shot. A “camera artist” to the core.

On the stormy voyage south, Scott had  described Ponting    “developing plates with the developing dish in one hand and a sick bag in the other….”

But Cape Evans Scott was even more impressed with his professionalism and wrote in his diaries of Ponting’s “rapture” and “delight.” “He is an artist in love with his work….” On another occasion he noted “ I would describe him as sustained by artistic enthusiasm. This world of ours is a different one to him than it is to the rest of us. He guages it by its picturesqueness. His joy is to reproduce its pictures artistically, his grief is to fail to do so.”

At Cape Evans, when the hut was finished, and life  settled into the  routines of managing the  dark months of winter, the twice-weekly lecture series was enlivened by Ponting’s popular lantern-slide talks of his journeys in Japan, India, and China. Midwinter Day, June 22, 1911, was marked by a celebratory dinner and a Ponting lantern show of  images taken, as Scott said, “from his own local negatives. I have never so fully realised the value of his work as on seeing these beautiful pictures……the audience cheered vociferously.”

But it wasn’t always a happy reception :

“The photographer Ponting is an abominable nuisance,” wrote the team physicist Charles Wright in his diary, “we have to be posing the whole time for his cinematograph. There are two of the men, Levick and Meares, who are always being photographed. I have not yet discovered whether they like it, or are merely more obliging than the rest of us.”

“To Pont” became a common verb in the diaries of the Cape Evans party, meaning “ to pose until nearly frozen in all sorts of uncomfortable positions” to satisfy the artistic eye of “Ponco,” and the hefty demands of his cumbersome gear.

In the winter of 1911 Cecil Meares wrote a ditty about him:

“I’ll sing a little song, about one among our throng,
whose skill in making pictures is not wanting.
He takes pictures while you wait, “prices strictly moderate,”
I refer, of course, to our Professor Ponting.

Then pont, Ponco, pont and long may Ponco pont;
With his finger on the trigger of his gadget.
For whenever he’s around, we’re sure to hear the sound
Of his high-speed cinematographic ratchet.”

Ponting  was generous with his photographic knowledge, and willingly taught a number of his colleagues the essential skills of handling these new cameras, including Scott and Bowers  for the final Southern journey– teaching Scott how to use a long thread to trigger the shutter  to take shots including himself, amongst other tricks. The telling South Pole photograph of the five defeated footsloggers halfway to their deaths was shot in this manner.

In the Cape Evans hut he built himself a darkroom behind the main stove, and was indulged to do so by Scott: a “palatial chamber” he cheerfully described it, for developing his plates and primitive movie film, and he slept in it as well. It was 1.8m x 2.4m ( 8 ft long x 6ft wide ) x 8ft high. Had there been a cat to swing, it would not have survived its first revolution.

This same  tiny darkroom, incidentally, later became a  confessional chapel of sorts for  Rev. Spencer Smith of the forgotten Ross Sea Party, Shackleton’s  “Lost Men.” A few of us in this audience have stood in that darkroom. It is now indeed dark, and brown with  unpainted wood, and it still contains chemical dishes, glass stoppered bottles, and shelves of chemicals. In the photographs at Ponting’s time, it looks almost cosy and comfortable, but it didn’t feel that way to me.

From the start, Scott relieved Ponting of all other duties except the recording of his expedition, knowing full well of the  promotional and and fundraising value of the photographs and moving film.  There would be over 1000 photographs  taken during his 14 months in McMurdo Sound. Unsurprisingly, “Ponco” was reluctant to waste any of the precious time on the ice sleeping – an urgency I felt very strongly myself in that circumstance. But what Ponting didn’t know – and only discovered when he arrived back in England – was that Captain Scott had sold the rights to his pictures without the photographer’s knowledge.

But though there were some grumbles amongst the party that the “camera artist” was being favoured, and not doing his fair share of the more arduous duties required of others, Ponting’s work was by no means all fun : it was, after all, mostly in frigid conditions, both in the darkroom and outside.

On one occasion,  recalled in his book “The Great White South” published first in October 1921, he described what happened when he was out with his sled-full of gear : …”my tongue came into contact with the metal part of one of my cameras, whilst moistening my lips as I was focusing. It froze fast instantaneously; and to release myself I had to jerk it away, leaving the skin on the end of my tongue sticking to my camera, and my mouth bled so profusely that I had to gag it with a handkerchief.”

“Ponco” departed Cape Evans  aboard the “Terra Nova” in late February 1912, unaware of the events slowly draining the life out of his colleagues on the Barrier. On his return to Britain Ponting was far from happy to learn that  the rights to his pictures had been surreptitiously sold under him, but he was deeply affected by the deaths of the five Polar Party, and that sad scenario seems to have have been behind his decision to renounce serious photography forever – an astonishing decision, given his obvious abilities and success. His interests shifted instead to the moving film.

He kept a promise to his Leader, however, in the lead-up to  the Great War’s outbreak in 1914 : for 10 months he lectured in the same London hall to an insatiable audience, combining together  what he called “ a beautiful  and complete series of photographs and films of the adventure, and of the Nature of life in the South.” At a Royal Command  showing, the new King George  V told him that he hoped it might be possible for every British boy to see the pictures; and during the war the films were shown to  more than 100,000 officers and men of the British Army in France.

Ponting was utterly convinced that “the kinematograph,” as he called it, “properly applied, is the greatest educational contrivance ever conceived by the genius of man. In it the art of photography finds its highest mission… the moving picture is one of the most potent moral influences of its time…”

Setting aside his indignation, he bought back the rights to the motion picture record of the expedition in 1914 for 5,000 pounds, and  before it was released in its final form – the one you’re about to see – in 1933, it had cost him more than an extra 10,000 pounds. It was  well received, but never a commercial success. Ponting lamented that “ It has left me just about ruined.”

Ponting was obsessed by his 14 months in Antarctica, but life after Cape Evans was checkered, to be kind, characterised by plenty of enthusiasm but questionable judgment : his movie film of the expedition consumed him but was a financial failure; he invested in a mushroom farm which collapsed;  he   lost money on  a variable Controllable Distortograph, which was a camera attachment designed to produce  caricature  distortions of faces and figures, and he wasted a lot of money  and time on his radical new  unburstable car inner tube, imaginatively called “The Ponco.” The advertising poster for this “Greatest Advance in motor traction since the invention of the Pneumatic Tyre,” proclaimed that the Ponco  Unburstable Inner Tube’s “Burstproof and Skidproof qualities will save thousands of lives yearly !” Embarrassingly, the Ponco   convincingly failed its first trials with London Transport.

But his book of photographs, “The Great White South” published in 1921 demonstrated his extraordinary artistry and technical skill, and had been reprinted 13 times by 2001.

Ponting’s fastidiousness and singing may have annoyed the hell out of his hut-mates, but his pictures carry the indelible stamp of a singular vision, and lifted the young art of photography to a new level of aesthetic achievement. In the pantheon of art from the Ice, Ponting’s plates occupy the highest positions. They remain unchallenged still  as treasures of Antarctic imagery, and stand separate from the Scott legend. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement.

I find it fascinating that having been rescued from  Elephant Island, Frank Hurley arrived back in London in late 1916, and attended the Ponting’s lecture-film  “With Captain Scott in the Antarctic” 4 times, and wrote in his diary that Ponting’s photographs were “ the acme of photographic perfection.” The two met, and remained mutual admirers.

Always a loner at heart,  Ponting never attended any of the reunions held from 1925 onwards by the survivors of the Terra Nova expedition.

Herbert Ponting was no businessman, nor good with money – reasons alone for me to identify strongly with him.  In his will were several legacies of several thousand pounds each, including to his  discarded son and daughter. But the net worth of his estate amounted to just 377 pounds, before the sale of his equipment and pictures. Sad fortunes, when so many now consider his art to be priceless, both aesthetically and historically.

How to finish up ? Well, I feel that Scott got lucky having Ponting on his crew : he was a true “camera artist” and the  expedition’s public image benefitted enormously from the sheer superior class of his photographs and filming skill. Had the photographic record not been quite so stunning and memorable,  public sentiment may not have been so intense, and so lasting. Because of Ponting, we still “know” the lead actors in the play, and the stage on which they acted out an extraordinary drama.

How little, by comparison, do we identify with or know the members of Amundsen’s triumphant party  : they  didn’t have a camera artist  amongst their number, so they are almost unknown, and unimaginable.

Ponting  got lucky being on the “Terra Nova” : Antarctica was in 1910 a visual wonderland largely unknown to the rest of the world, it rang every  artistic bell his instinct could muster, and he made it known. There’s no doubt that public interest soared when the tragedy was revealed; for a number of reasons, the  story of Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans echoed with vital symbolism for the British Empire. Ponting’s association with one of the most compulsively fascinating narratives of the C20th obsessed and sustained him for the rest of his life.

Can his photographs and films be separated from the  deathless fable of Scott and his loyal companions? Should they be ? Its an interesting question, probably without a definitive answer.

But I have to point out an important irony : that Ponting’s pictorial record  contains no  images of any of the real sources of the heroic or disastrous stories – the sledging parties themselves, the  doomed Polar Party, or the incredible Northern Party members who survived  that horrendous winter of 1912, and managed to stagger back to Cape Evans against all odds. He  wasn’t there when the real drama –  the truly appalling things – happened. He was back in the comforts and warmth of home.

What is certain,  though, is that Herbert Ponting’s images are not the BETTER for the melancholy narratives which envelop them : those stories  make them   more poignant, and add that extra beauty which sadness brings. They are not better – they are simply richer. They mean more.

But they also stand alone, separate from the sentiment, as superb works of photographic art.

“Beauty linked to tragedy,” as  Apsley Cherry-Garrard said in his obituary for Ponting : “one of the great tragedies – and the beauty is inconceivable, for it is endless and runs to eternity.”

The camera artist would have been satisfied with the remark.

Herbert Ponting died  of heart failure on February 7, 1935, aged 65.

“The Ponco” might have failed spectacularly, but Ponco’s art  was a spectacular gift. Like all  great artists, his real legacy is in the work we still treasure, far beyond his own  remarkable lifetime.

His hutmate Cecil Meares  wrote :

Then pont, Ponco, pont and long may Ponco pont

With his finger on the trigger of his gadget.

Now, nearly 100 years later, we are still there, if we are lucky, trying to be as good, our fingers on the triggers of our infinitely more sophisticated gadgets, unable to forget what he did.

But none of us has even got close.”

Grahame Sydney. 4 June 2009