In what may be one of history’s most famous successful failures, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and 27 other men set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914 to make what they hoped would be the first land crossing of Antarctica. The crew had hardly reached the continent when their ship was swallowed and crushed by ice. Freezing in unfathomably cold conditions, all 28 men survived for nearly 17 months in makeshift camps in a desperate trek back to civilization. Despite losing their ship, expedition photographer Frank Hurley was able to save his camera equipment, working in incredibly difficult conditions to document their plight. Nearly 100 years to the day of the ship sinking the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) has mounted the Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley, an exhibition of newly digitized images that provide incredible detail to the day-to-day life of the group of adventurers and survivors.
After 80 years of storing the original glass plate and celluloid negatives, RGS along with the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) has digitized over 90 images for the public. Due to enlargement, the photos reveal detail that had not been previously seen, like in the image of six crewmen huddled around the fire below. Previously, only five men were visible in the image, but after digitization it is now possible to make out a sixth man through the thick smoke of the flame.
Even modern photography would have been difficult in the antarctic conditions, but for Hurley it was nearly impossible. Glass plates were extremely heavy and would force the boat to carry unnecessary weight. In Hurley’s book “Argonauts of the South” written after the journey, he explained that he often had to risk his life to protect the plates. In one story, a time came to choose between tossing the plates or surplus food overboard. Hurley dumped the food.
Complete darkness was also a difficulty during the trip. This forced Hurley to light his subjects with flares, juggling a red hot flame while he manipulated a heavy camera. The effect of the technique was nothing short of cinematic, the image below showcasing the ship Endurance like a brilliant specter just before its fateful sinking.
Each photograph of the expedition is both a testament to Shackleton’s ability to lead and will to survive, as well as to Hurley’s contribution to the canon of photography. To learn more about Shackleton’s fateful voyage check out the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. If you want to explore the newly digitized images in person, make sure to catch the Enduring Eye which runs through February 28, 2016 at the Royal Geographic Society in London. The exhibition will then have a voyage of its own and travel to the US, Canada, and Australia. (via Al Jazeera)