Restored photos retrace Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage

Expedition photographer saved negatives from a trip to the white continent in 1915, which are now on display in London.

London, UK – One hundred years ago, 28 men were putting the final touches on a ramshackle camp on a drifting iceberg.

That was not how it was supposed to be: Ernest Shackleton and his crew had set off from England in 1914 to be the first to cross the white continent of Antarctica.

But on November, 21, 1915, their ship, the Endurance, sank after having been stuck in the pack ice for nearly a year.

The expedition photographer, Frank Hurley, managed to save his photographic equipment and continued to document the journey.

His photographs have now been digitised from the fragile original plates and negatives and are on display at the Royal Geographical Society.

The men onboard Endurance before the ship sank in the Weddell Sea. A sixth man can just be seen behind the man with the glasses. Courtesy: RGS-IBG

The images are enlarged to show greater resolution and bring out details never before seen.

In The Night Watchman’s Story, a sixth man is seen in the photo who wasn’t obvious before. The ship became ensnared in the pack ice in January 1915.

One journal entry notes that for three hours they used the full thrust of Endurance’s engines and any wind the sails could gather to try to free the ship.

Hurley got on an ice floe to record the attempt.

It’s hard to imagine how difficult photography was 100 years ago; the cameras were huge, the barrels of developing fluid were heavy and there was no luxury of taking another shot just to be sure.

Despite attempts to free her the Endurance was stuck in the pack ice for nearly a year before sinking. Courtesy: RGS-IBG

“Every image had to earn its place because it cost a lot;  both to buy the glass plates and to develop and each one had to matter,” curator Meredith Hooper told me on a recent visit.

Add to that the extreme circumstances – complete darkness for months and sub-zero temperatures.

Hurley used flares to light his subjects; you can see the bright areas where he set the pans of flash powder around the ship.

“It must have been an extraordinary flash of light in the middle of an Antarctic dark night, in the middle of the ice,” Hooper said

”In total, total darkness is this one ship hundreds of miles from any known human, stuck on the ice and when he [Hurley] does capture the image it’s so powerful. It’s the only way we can get a sense of the loneliness and isolation.”

Hurley is seen here outside a makeshift hut that had become home. Courtesy: RGS-IBG

All of the men were finally rescued in August 1916, after Shackleton and a five-man crew managed an epic journey, sailing 1,200km in a lifeboat to South Georgia.  

I brought a veteran polar explorer along to get his take on the  Enduring Eye exhibition.

Jim McNeill is preparing to lead the Ice Warrior Project: an expedition of 28 to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility.

The centre of the Arctic Ocean is one of the last places on this planet that hasn’t been explored. 

McNeill has tried to get there twice: the first attempt, in 2003, ended when he contracted necrotising fasciitis – the flesh-eating disease; the second, in 2006, ended when he fell through the ice and didn’t have enough fuel to fully dry his clothes and gear.

Shackleton kept his men busy. Naturalist Reginald James is seen taking observations on the ice.  Courtesy: RGS-IBG

McNeill said Shackleton would have kept up a regime for the crew. You can see Reginald James, a naturalist on the expedition, taking observations.

“It’s very good to keep people busy,” McNeill told me as we looked at a picture of the men weighing the dogs, a completely useless exercise.
”There’s nothing worse than a crew that’s sat still and wondering.” 

That’s where good leadership skills are critical.

“One thing you have got to do is teach people to take the rough with the smooth, the peaks and the troughs of emotion, and when they are feeling the desperate situation they’re in, how to avoid getting too gloomy about it,” McNeill said.

The show Enduring Eye runs through February and will then travel to the US, Canada and Australia.

Further information can be found at:

Hurley used flares to illuminate the ship; for many months there was total darkness. Courtesy: RGS-IBG
Source: Al Jazeera


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