Herbert G. Ponting:
Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935) was one of the most renowned photographers of his
day when he was recruited as ‘camera-artist’ to the British Antarctic (Terra
Nova) Expedition, 1910-1913.
Born into a wealthy Victorian
family from Salisbury, Ponting worked briefly as a banker before moving to
California and turning his attention to photography. During the first years of
the 20th century, a number of assignments took him to the Far East. In
1904-1905, he photographed the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, before
continuing his travels in Japan, Burma, Java, China and India, selling his work
to London's foremost magazines. In 1910, he expanded his photographs of Japan
into a book, In Lotus-Land Japan, which was published
just before his departure for the Antarctic, and remains much sought after.
As a member of the Terra Nova Expedition, 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 of the environment
around Cape Evans. During the winter of 1911, he took many photographs of Scott
and the other members of the expedition in their hut, producing images that
speak to us both within and beyond their historical context.
With the start of the 1911-12
sledging season, Ponting's field work began to come to an end. As a middle-aged
man, he was not able to take part on the inland trek to the South Pole and,
after 14 months at Cape Evans, he boarded Terra Nova in
Ponting returned to London, where he set to work shaping a visual narrative of
the expedition for Captain Scott to show during his lectures upon his return.
This was not to be, however, 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. Although they were
much used, a prior contractual agreement with Scott did not guarantee Ponting
any exclusivity in exploiting the photographs, and his own lectures earned him
very little. Then, with the advent of World War I, the world suddenly had more
pressing concerns than expeditions to the Antarctic. Paradoxically, Ponting’s
most profitable venture was his book, The Great White South,
a written account of his participation in the expedition.
Ponting virtually gave up photography, turning to business instead, but he was
no businessman. He invested money in a number of ventures, only one of which was
in his own field – a film printing company. They all failed. When he died in
1935, the net value of his estate was insufficient to pay off his debts.