Enduring Eye

‘Enduring Eye’, an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society, celebrates the Antarctic photography of Frank Hurley and Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

There can be few tales in the annals of exploration to match that of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the so-called Endurance Expedition. On 21 November 1915, Endurance sank beneath the Antarctic ice, leaving her 28-man crew stranded with no hope of rescue. To mark its centenary and the epic battle for survival that followed, the Royal Geographical Society is staging an exhibition, ‘Enduring Eye’, featuring the images of expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

I first read the story of Endurance almost 30 years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since, but this was the first exhibition I’d seen as a photographer. What struck me was the important role photography played in the expedition. It was used for scientific and geographical purposes, but it had another, equally important role: propaganda. Expedition leaders, always struggling to raise funds, knew the value of good images both to attract sponsors and elicit donations from the public; images could also be used for lecture tours and books. On his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition a few years earlier, Captain Scott had paid photographer Herbert Ponting a higher salary than any of his scientists; it was the first time a professional photographer had been included on an Antarctic expedition.

‘Enduring Eye’ begins in South Georgia. The first image (shown below) highlights the difficulties of photography in 1915. It shows Hurley and crew member Lionel Greenstreet looking down from a mountain peak on Endurance moored below. Greenstreet recounts: “I gave him a hand to lug a whole plate camera & 40lbs of gear & accouterments & by gum we had some lovely places to go up, like a fly crawling up a wall…he did get some beauties from the top though.” Another image shows Hurley with his large plate camera sitting precariously astride the topsail yard arm in order to find a vantage point (pictured below).

When the crew were forced to abandon Endurance before she was crushed by the ice in November 1915, they took essential supplies only. The scene of Shackleton tearing a few pages from the Bible given to him by Queen Alexandra, before discarding it on the ice, has gone down in Antarctic legend (it was rescued by one of the crew and is shown below). And yet about 150 of Hurley’s glass plate negatives, saved from the icy waters, were man-hauled across the Antarctic ice.

When Shackleton set off for help with five crew members on the 900-mile crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia in little more than a rowing boat, he did so with one of Hurley’s glass plate negatives wrapped securely and clutched to his chest. The image was published on 10 July 1916 (pictured below), days before the third attempt to rescue the crew still stranded on Elephant Island.

In Antarctica, the plates were worthless, no more than excess baggage. Their value would be realised only if the men made it home. Shackleton’s decision to save the plates must have had a huge psychological effect on the men: it must have said, ‘we’re going home and telling the world our story’. Hurley’s images survive not only as a testament to his skill as a photographer but to Shackleton’s courage and endurance as a leader.

The exhibition is on until 28 February 2016 and comes highly recommended; entry is free.You can find out more on the RGS’s website: http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/Exhibitions/The+Enduring+Eye+The+Antarctic+Legacy+of+Sir+Ernest+Shackleton+and+Frank+Hurley.htm


Pictured: Hurley astride the topsail yard arm; a glass plate negative; the Daily Mirror, 10 July 2016; the Bible and flag brought back from Antarctica; Hurley and Greenstreet in South Georgia




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