Herbert Ponting produced some of the most well-known and enduring images of the Antarctic. A self-taught professional, he spent his early career travelling through Asia and Europe delivering beautifully composed photographs of landscapes and peoples back to a wide variety of magazines, periodicals, newspapers and publishers. It was his assignment as official photographer and cinematographer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1914 that was to dominate the rest of his life.
Born in Salisbury, England in 1870, Ponting emigrated to California in his early twenties after rejecting the career in banking his father intended for him. He dabbled in fruit farming and in mining, neither of which were financially successful. He turned to his growing interest in photography to support himself and his young family, the family he was soon to desert in favour of pursuing his photographic ambitions. His early interest in the stereoscopic technique of photography brought him to the attention of Underwood & Underwood, a publisher of stereographic photographs, who commissioned him to travel to Japan. Asia held a constant fascination for Ponting and he returned there many times during the first ten years of his career. He was a correspondent for ‘Harper’s Weekly’ covering the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5 and went on to travel around Japan, India, China, Korea, Java and Burma.
‘The Great White South’
Soon after the publication in 1910 of his book ‘In Lotus-land Japan’, Ponting joined Captain Robert Scott’s crew as the first professional photographer or ‘camera artist’ as he preferred to be called, to be employed on an Antarctic expedition. Appropriately, it was during an arduous journey on the Trans-Siberian railway in January 1907 that he first read about Scott in his book ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’. Just over two years later Ponting found himself turning down a two year commission to travel the Empire and instead joining Scott’s crew as the first professional photographer, or ‘camera artist’ as he preferred to be called, to be employed on an Antarctic expedition. He saw this opportunity as ‘a chance, such as never would come to me again, to turn the experience that I had gained to some permanent benefit to geography, and that I was convinced that if I went, and were given a free hand to utilise my experience as I thought best, the photographic results might prove not only of great educational value, but a valuable asset to the enterprise.’ (‘The Great White South’, London, 1921). Previous expeditions had been recorded photographically, but never before by a specialist. After a crash course in ‘moving pictures’, still in its early stages of development at that time, he joined Scott’s Terra Nova and her crew in New Zealand and sailed south.
He was to spend a gruelling fourteen months at the hut at Cape Evans, building himself a small photographic darkroom in order to develop film and store his camera equipment. He produced over one thousand photographs during his stay in Antarctica which explore the Antarctic landscape and wildlife, whilst also visually documenting day-to-day expedition life.
Ponting pursued his photography with a single-mindedness that sometimes put himself or others into potentially risky situations. He was often to be seen constructing various hoists to hold himself and his equipment over the edge of the ship in order to get the perfect shot. Thomas Clissold, the expedition cook, fell victim to this single-mindedness when he received various injuries after falling from the iceberg Ponting was photographing him atop. Ponting strived to create perfectly balanced photographs; his compositions are often unashamedly posed. The expedition crew members were often engaged in what came to be known as ‘ponting’ i.e. posing for photographs. Part of this was out of a responsibility to some of the sponsors of the expeditions – there are photographs of crew members tucking into Heinz baked beans or enjoying some Fry’s hot chocolate.
He left Cape Evans in late February 1912, along with eight other men for whom it was decided should leave rather than endure a second harsh Antarctic winter.
News of the deaths of Scott and his fellow crew members Oates, Wilson and Bowers and Evans, reached Ponting along with the rest of the world in February 1913. The rest of his life and career became dedicated to ensuring that the grandeur of the Antarctic and Scott’s heroism would never be forgotten. He effectively gave up travelling and photography, concentrating his efforts on touring the country, lecturing about the expedition using his photographs and moving footage. His book ‘The Great White South’, illustrated with 164 photographs of his photographs was published in 1921 and was a huge success. He then turned to concentrate on his moving footage although it wasn’t until 1933 that his full sound version of ‘Ninety Degrees South: With Scott to the Antarctic’, shot during 1910-1911, was officially released to great acclaim. The Standard went on to declare that ‘No previous Polar expedition has had such ‘live’ chronicles taken of its life among the snows.’ Ponting himself was a convert to moving footing declaring that ‘the fascination of a moving, living picture is irresistible – the cinematograph is undoubtedly one of the greatest educators of the century.’
Ponting never really succeeded in benefiting commercially from his photographic and cinematographic skills. It seems that he was not a particularly astute businessman and the financial aspects of the film and stills rights were never clearly agreed or addressed. He died in 1935, after spending the final years of his life working on various projects unrelated to his experiences in Antarctica which were doomed to failure. He possessed a tireless enthusiasm for ‘inventions’, producing such things a Variable Controllable Distortagraph, which created caricatures of peoples’ faces through cameras and projectors.
Herbert Ponting can be regarded as a pioneer of modern polar photography. He was the first to bring an artistic eye to the science of recording polar expeditions and life. In Scott he found a leader willing to give him the opportunity to pursue his art in such a technically challenging and artistically inspiring part of the world he would ever encounter. His photographs were a huge influence on Frank Hurley who, inspired by Ponting’s achievements, went on to photograph and film Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.