The story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition a century ago is widely known. The explorer reached the South Pole to discover a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had got there first, five weeks earlier. On the way back Scott and his men tragically died of exhaustion inside their tent, just 11 miles from a food depot.
A lesser known fact is that Captain Scott was a skilled photographer. Previously unseen images taken by the British explorer on the fated expedition have recently come to light and have just been published in a photography book. The result, ‘The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott’, documents the pioneering extreme adventure photography of Scott’s trip and will interest anyone curious about the genre’s history.
The book is written by David Wilson, polar historian and great nephew of Edward Wilson, one of the men who died beside Scott. “The surprise is not that he took photographs but how good they are,” he told the London Guardian.
Ponting reported that Scott initially made all the usual beginner’s mistakes, on one occasion returning from a shoot declaring he had captured some great shots only to discover he had left the lens cap on. Wilson claims that Scott later attempted things that Ponting never did, such as capturing action shots of the ponies stumbling and the men struggling to drag sledges through knee-deep snow.
In 1910 Scott was struggling to raise funds for the expedition but understanding the propaganda value of superb images, recruited master photographer Herbert Ponting. Scott’s decision was groundbreaking as it marked the first time a professional photographer was included on an official expedition. Ponting not only took iconic images of Antarctica but was also tasked with teaching Scott photographic basics so the explorer could document the journey without him.
Wilson emphasizes the significance of photography on this trip, marking the point where the camera took over from the sketch pad. (Four years later the Australian photographer Frank Hurley would take the genre to a new level, capturing iconic images of the explorer Shackleton’s ship crushed by sea ice.)
There is little information about the camera equipment used, but Ponting preferred to shoot on plate glass rather than film. He also used a primitive device called a cinematograph, which could take short video sequences.
Ultimately the aim was to use the images and footage in public lectures to recoup the financial debts of the expedition. Unfortunately, by the time Scott’s body was found, arguments about the ownership rights had already broken out. After two years the photographs were eventually returned to Ponting, who died in 1935. The images were then purchased by a commercial picture agency, and lay unrecognized in a messy heap in an archived cardboard box. Almost a century later, they resurfaced in New York at a low-key auction. The images, shot on nitrate film, had disintegrated but a single set of positives survived. The buyer, an American antiquarian bookseller named Richard Kossow made contact with Wilson and the rest, they say, is history.
The photographs are on display at the Atlas Photography Gallery in London from November 3- 26 and can be seen online here.