I told [Capt. Scott] that all my previous travels had been made in the interests of geography; that I felt that this was a chance, such as never would come to me again, to turn the experience that I had gained to some permanent benefit to science, 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 to be not only of great educational value, but a valuable asset to the enterprise. He seemed pleased and thanked me for taking this view, and then and there it was decided that I should throw in my lot with the Expedition.
(H.G. Ponting, The Great White South)
With these expectations Herbert Ponting became the first professional photographer to explore the Antarctic with his camera. When he returned from two years of constant and painstaking work under the most difficult of circumstances there, millions throughout the world would come to see the beauty and majesty of the earth's last known continent through his images.
He brought back with him approximately 1700 glass plate negatives of still photographs. From these he carefully selected 825 images, made silver gelatin contact prints of them, and mounted them in the three albums present here, labelled to reflect the size of their original negatives. THESE ARE PONTING'S PERSONAL ALBUMS, designed to present to the public the entirety of his still camera artistry during Scott's famous expedition. Each image is numbered by Ponting to correspond with three typewritten lists of titles and dates, which acted as a guide to the negatives as well as these prints. The original title lists, identified in Ponting's hand, are included for sale with the albums.
Ponting was a meticulous artist, which is reflected here. Each print is listed chronologically, from the expedition's departure from New Zealand to Ponting's return in the Terra Nova, and each is fully described as to place, action and subjects; every expedition member, every dog and pony in every image is identified. Often photographic details of lenses used, information regarding lighting, and climactic conditions are detailed in the lists. As a result, the entire sweep of the expedition's journey to the Antarctic, and life on Ross Island, comes to life visually -- a photographic travel narrative without parallel in its time.
The prints Ponting assembled here include those images which have become, through publication and exhibition, among the most famous British photographs of the 20th Century. Additionally, the whole series includes variants of better-known images as well as subjects which have rarely, if ever, been shown. Among these are portraits and details which reveal something of the hardship experienced by Scott's men even before the final assault on the Pole. Ponting includes several self-portraits documenting the lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to achieve such remarkable pictures and the darkrooms he constructed on the Terra Nova and in the hut in order to develop his work. Indeed, the amount of detail about the scientific nature of Scott's preparations and observations revealed by these albums has probably never been fully appreciated. A good third of the prints illustrate animal life in Antarctic waters and on Ross Island -- the most comprehensive assemblage of natural history images from any Antarctic expedition to date.
As a consequence of the chronological arrangement of the albums, and the inclusiveness of Ponting's choices, he has also preserved in these albums a record of the changing nature of his artistic vision. For many years before the Terra Nova expedition, Ponting had travelled the world with his camera, and his work as a landscape photographer had become renowned for its picturesque qualities. These attributes are plainly evident in his majestic representations of Antarctic scenery early in the expedition's progress; many of the most popular and most frequently reproduced views of Scott's expedition during Ponting's lifetime came from this period of his work. Yet, as Ponting became more familiar with his environment and working conditions, he began to concentrate more on the shape and forms of ice formations than on vistas. In quite a few of these ice pictures one can see the beginnings of a 'modernist' photographic eye -- the precurser of what might well be described as the most significant feature of photography later in the 20th century.
Ponting was of course right to believe that he would produce 'a valuable asset to the enterprise'; for at least two years after news of Scott's death reached the world, Ponting did not sell prints from his negatives for his own benefit. The Expedition Trust used many of them in their various publications, and sponsored a worldwide selling exhibition through the Fine Art Society, offering 145 of Ponting's images as greatly enlarged prints. Ponting probably compiled the present albums before providing his negatives for use by the Expedition. He also produced several presentation albums, all containing a much smaller number of pictures -- usually tailored for the individual recipient -- for various members of the expedition. One such album, with a little more than half the images present here, was sold in these Rooms, 21 Sept. 2000, Lot 101 (£146,750). Around 1915 Ponting reclaimed his negatives and began selling prints from them for the next 20 years, until his death in 1935. Given the plain covers of these albums, and various internal annotations as to copyright restrictions, Ponting may well have used them as order books for visitors to his studio during this period.
Having seen Ponting's work at first hand, Scott recorded his reactions to it in his diary, written on Ross Island in 1911:
Of the many admirable points about Ponting's work the most notable are his eye for a picture and the mastery he has acquired of ice subjects. The composition of his pictures is extraordinarily good; he seems to know by instinct the exact value of foreground and middle distance, and of the introduction of 'life', whilst with more technical skill he emphasises the subtle shadows of the snow and reproduces its wonderfully transparent texture. He is an artist in love with his work.
By the time of Ponting's death in 1935 the appreciation of his work appears, if anything, to have deepened. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote at the time of Ponting's photography:
Here in these pictures is beauty linked with tragedy -- one of the great tragedies -- and the beauty is inconceivable for it is endless and runs to eternity.