Herbert George Ponting, FRGS (March 21, 1870 – February 7, 1935)
Herbert Ponting was a professional photographer and pioneer of modern polar photography. He is best known as the expedition photographer and cinematographer for Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and South Pole (1910–1913). In this role, he captured some of the most enduring images of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Born into a wealthy Victorian family from Salisbury, UK, Ponting worked briefly as a banker before moving to California and turning his attention to photography. He spent his early career travelling through Asia and Europe, delivering beautifully composed photographs of landscapes and people back to London’s foremost magazines. His flair for journalism and ability to shape his photographic illustrations into a narrative led to his being signed as the expedition photographer for Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, 1910-13.
To the Antarctic
Ponting helped set up the Antarctic winter hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island and was entitled to a tiny photographic darkroom in which he also slept. Working mostly with glass plate negatives, he set to work photographing all aspects of the expedition and environment around Cape Evans, including images of Scott and the other expedition members in their hut during the winter of 1911.
Ponting produced more than 1,000 photographs during his Antarctic stay, including some of the first known color still photographs of Antarctica. He was also one of the first men to use a portable movie camera in Antarctica, using a primitive device, called a cinematograph. He pursued his photography with a single-mindedness that sometimes put himself or others into potentially risky situations, and he strived to create perfectly balanced photographs. His compositions are often unashamedly posed, with expedition crew members engaged in what came to be known as ‘ponting’ i.e. posing for photographs.
Ponting’s field work began to come to an end with the start of the 1911-12 sledging season. As a middle-aged man, he was not expected to help pull supplies southward for the push to the South Pole. He boarded Terra Nova in February 1912, after 14 months at Cape Evans, and returned to London. There he set to work shaping a visual narrative of the expedition for Captain Scott to show during his lectures upon his return. However, this was not to be, as Scott and four of his men perished on their return from the Pole.
The tragic outcome of the Terra Nova expedition would affect Ponting’s later life and career. He effectively gave up traveling and photography, concentrating his efforts on touring the country, lecturing about the expedition using his photographs and moving footage. In 1921 Ponting published The Great White South, the photographic narrative of the expedition, to huge success. He later produced two films based upon his surviving cinematograph sequences, The Great White Silence (1924 – silent) and Ninety Degrees South (1933 – sound). Ponting died in London in 1935.
Herbert Ponting can be regarded as a pioneer of modern polar photography. He was the first to bring an artistic eye to the science of recording polar expeditions and life. His photographs were a huge influence on Frank Hurley who, inspired by Ponting’s achievements, went on to photograph and film Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The Scott Polar Research Institute purchased the Ponting Collection in 2004. The Great White Silence was restored by the British Film Institute and re-released in 2011.
Ponting’s photographs can be viewed at:
Royal Geographical Society: http://images.rgs.org/search.aspx?artistID=7361
Scott Polar Research Institute: http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/catalogue/bae1910-13/