University of Tasmania
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Camera artist in Antarctica: Herbert Ponting's images of Scott's last expedition.

posted on 2023-05-26, 03:51 authored by Millar, PM
Herbert Ponting was the first professional photographer to work in Antarctica. Selected by R.F. Scott to record and document the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-13), Ponting produced over one thousand still photographs, generally considered the finest work of his career, a pioneering and acclaimed cine-film, 90° South: With Scott to the Antarctic, and a successful book, The Great White South. His images of the ultimately tragic enterprise are vivid constructions of the realities of Antarctica and the expedition, as he perceived them. The images are used to illustrate many books about the expedition, but are seldom examined in any detail. This thesis aims to address this deficiency by studying relevant literature produced by Ponting and other writers, followed by an analysis of Ponting's role as 'camera artist' on the expedition, and a detailed examination of images. A visual semiotics methodology is used, based on a combination of discourse analysis (Gee 1990, 2005) and visual analysis (Kress & van Leeuwen 2006). There are 38 illustrations in the thesis. Ponting's focus is on the beauty of Antarctica, the nobility of the venture, the fineness of the men. He had a keen sense of his audience, which would in the first instance be a British one, and discourses of cultural pride flow through much of the work, a visual language which contemporary audiences would have associated with their inherited ways of being, behaving, and valuing. Interwoven themes, however, allude to darker aspects. His landscapes have resonances of the awe and power associated with the concept of the sublime. Photographs of exhausted and injured men evoke reminders of the transience of life. A connecting theme throughout the work is Ponting's expression of his own personal and professional role. A complex man who wanted close relationships, yet resisted them, he remained something of a loner, his sense of personal identity strongly merged with the professional one. In the years after Antarctica, he remained fixated on the expedition, dedicated to keeping alive the public's memory of it and its tragedy. But his achievements went beyond this. His work was an intrinsic part of that promotion of Antarctic science which was the expedition's most substantial legacy. Ponting increased contemporary knowledge of the Antarctic environment and topography, and made a direct contribution to the life sciences through his substantial depiction of wildlife in photographs and film. Ponting skillfully used techniques such as composition, lighting and tone to construct images which have stirred strong responses in viewers from his own time to the present. His place in the history of camera art is a specialised one, closely associated with Antarctica, but the best of his images endure as works of art in their own right. His work was seminal, paving the way for other fine photographers of the polar region.


Publication status

  • Unpublished

Rights statement

Text Copyright 2009 the Author. Images Copyright Royal Geographical Society, London; Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Repository Status

  • Open

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