Books

How Herbert Ponting captured Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition

The tragic heroism of Captain Scott and his team is brought to vivid life for new audiences in a revived edition of The Great White South.

Chris, the sledging dog Photo from The Great White South by Herbert Pointing

The details of the Terra Nova South Pole expedition of 1910-1913 are etched in our collective imaginations. We know what happened; the courage of that brave party of men who, having been beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, faced a daunting trek back to the hut at Ross Island.

Through a unique combination of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s detailed diary records and the extraordinary quality of Herbert George Ponting’s photography, we have a unique record of this ambitious, ultimately tragic, enterprise. 

Ponting described himself as a “camera artist”, and was hired by Scott to be the first professional photographer to accompany a polar expedition. Ponting had first met Scott in 1909, having spent much of the previous 10 years travelling around Asia as a regular freelance contributor to English language periodicals. 

The Great White South is Ponting’s account of a bold venture. Originally published in 1921, it is a remarkable book in many ways as he describes life with Scott’s crew on board the Terra Nova and at their expedition base on Ross Island. It provides a first-hand insight into the nature of daily life as a trusted member of Scott’s team. His writing is often highly entertaining and always informative, and superbly complemented by his extensive photographs. Ponting had a wide brief from Scott, and his book goes beyond observing the immediate expedition aims and preparation for the trek to the Pole. 

Ponting is a good storyteller and has a flair for observational writing as he records the habits of the native penguins and seals. He shares the excitement of his arrival at volcanic Mount Erebus, how a team of dogs was nearly lost in a crevasse and a dramatic escape from a harrowing run-in with a pack of killer whales.  

Ponting was born in Salisbury on March 21, 1870. The son of a banker, he started work in a bank branch in Liverpool, but decided that it was not the career for him. Emigrating to California, he ran a fruit ranch and worked in mining, and in 1895 he married the American Mary Elliott. Following a chance meeting with a photographer in San Francisco he turned his long-standing interest in photography into his next career, entering his pictures in competitions and winning awards.   

At the turn of the century Ponting headed to Asia as a freelancer, travelling extensively in Burma, Korea, Java, China and India, taking stereoviews and covering the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. He wrote illustrated articles for magazines including Country Life, The Graphic, Illustrated London News, Pearson’s and the Strand Magazine

In 1905 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS). His flair for journalism and reputation as a photographer led to his being chosen as the expedition photographer aboard the Terra Nova at the age of 40. He was the first professional photographer to be included on an Antarctic expedition. 

Scott’s team after being beaten to the South Pole Photo from The Great White South by Herbert Pointing

The tragic heroism of Captain Scott and his companions is known to us all, but the wider scope and accomplishments of the expedition are also very familiar. This is in no small part due to Ponting’s photography and filming of the endeavour. His images of Antarctica are exceptional and have left us with an enduring and memorable record. His photographs have an incredible clarity and his sense of composition shows through some of the extraordinary images of that barren Antarctic landscape. 

The Great White South by Herbert Ponting is available in hardback (£24.95) and paperback (£9.95) from daredevilbooks.co.uk Big Issue readers can get a 20 per cent discount using the code FB20

His breadth of skill and technique is demonstrated by some of the portraits, especially when he tried to capture the weary faces of crew members returning from exploration trips that in one case so nearly killed them. He taught Scott and members of that final tragic push to the South Pole to take self-timer photos, hence us having that unique record of the heartbroken team, disappointment etched on their faces, on finding that they had been beaten in their endeavour to reach the South Pole first. 

His written account of being part of Scott’s team is sometimes overlooked but The Great White South is an engaging and enjoyable tale. From vivid descriptions of the icy landscape, gales at sea and near-death experiences to his perceptive character studies and love of Adélie penguins, Ponting brings each unique adventure to life.  

In writing his book, Ponting hoped to inspire the next generation of British children to emulate the courage and ambition of Scott. It achieves that and much more. 

Toby Hartwell is a freelance publicist

You can buy The Great White South from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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