Many people have read or watched television shows about Sir Ernest Shackleton's unsuccessful Antarctic expedition aboard the Endurance. All of those stories are hobbled in their telling by our limited ability to experience the Antarctic regions. I have never been to Antarctica and probably never will. The same is probably true for you. What is it like?
I got my first insights a few years ago when a friend shared his experiences through hundreds of photographs that he took during a two week voyage in these same seas. Ever since then, I have wondered what all the photographs of Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Shackleton's last expedition, would show. Was I delighted when this marvelous book recently became available!
Shackleton and his team headed south towards a planned crossing of the Antarctic continent through the South Pole in Endurance. With ice running at unusually high levels for summer, they became stuck within sight of land. Eventually the ship was destroyed by the ice pack. They then pulled the ship's life boats over the ice to open sea, and made it to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and a few of his men headed out over hundreds of miles of open sea to South Georgia Island where they made a nearly impossible trek across the island to get help. After initially unsuccessful attempts to return to Elephant Island, all hands were eventually saved. The leadership by Shackleton during those problem times has become the stuff of legends.
This book contains all of the photographs that Mr. Hurley made during the expedition. His work was critical to the expedition in several ways. First, Shackleton was only able to raise the money to launch the voyage through promising to take Mr. Hurley along as official photographers. Second, Mr. Hurley's photographs were key to the fund-raising after the expedition that got Sir Ernest out of debt. Third, the photographs made the story of the expedition more real to us today. One of the impressive stories of this rescue is that the decision was made to lug the heavy glass plates and equipment along over the ice when mere survival was a question. Has a group ever acted in a more committed way to its photographic record?
The book contains almost 500 images, some of which have not been published before. If you are like me, you will be happily surprised to see that some include early examples of color photography that capture the eerie bluish color of the ice. The end of the book has a gallery of all the images, in the chronological order in which they were taken. Happily, Mr. Hurley still had three exposures left when the rescue arrived. Undaunted, he returned to South Georgia Island in 1917 to fill in gaps in the animal records to make the whole perspective complete.
Mr. Hurley was a very brave and exacting photographer. You will see him sitting on the edge of the top parts of the mast so he can get just the angle he wants. In another remarkable image, he has climbed to the highest point near the harbor to capture the best possible panorama shot. He frequently wandered way off from Endurance so that he could provide a better sense of this tiny object locked in by nature's power.
There's a lot of human interest here as well. His portraits convey lots of aspects about the habits and personalities of his subjects. He captures the men at play and while partying, so you get a sense of everyday life, as well. The animal photographs almost add comic relief by showing life as normal. His images of the destruction of whaling are effective in denouncing the whale trade.
I also learned some important new things about the expedition from the photographs and this book. Sir Ernest made a mistake in choosing Endurance. With a relatively flat bottom and steep sides, Endurance was less likely to escape the ice. With a rounder hull (as he had used in his last expedition), this expedition would probably have succeeded. Also, the effort of escaping from the ice was amazing. One photograph shows men straining in traces to pull a single boat across the ice. You also get scenes of trying to open up the ice around Endurance. The most impressive part of the collection to me was seeing the sequence of how Endurance was crushed into little bits and pieces.
The photography is superb. Impressively, there is a fair amount of work done in the dark, which gives a sense of the endless night that comes in mid-June. The book also contains excellent essays about the expedition, Mr. Hurley's career, and the photographic methods used by Mr. Hurley. Excerpts from Mr. Hurley's diary are also used to highlight his images.
I recommend reading this book on the coldest day of the upcoming winter, while the wind is howling. In fact, you may want to walk outdoors for a while first to get into just the right mood.
Where would you like to go where you have never gone before? Prepare carefully! Bring lots of camera equipment and film!