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Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The catalyst of change for two photographers

Ponting was a committed professional and pulled a sled, by himself, with over 200 pounds of camera equipment. He considered himself a “camera artist,” and despite the advent of more portable small film cameras introduced 10 years before, he used a large-format camera with the glass-plate technique to produce more detailed images. During what would be his only trip to Antarctica, he produced what’s considered the most iconic images from the “Heroic Age” of Antarctica exploration. The photography from Ponting’s trip south propelled Scott into his status as a legendary explorer (compared to the fairly obscure Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole a month before Scott and lived to tell the tale, but didn’t have a photographer along) and has been the inspiration for the thousands who visit the continent each year to photograph this dramatic landscape.

With photography, the best of what I do would only be good if it is a reflection of me, [Sydney] says. For me, the challenge was how the hell am I going to do justice to my own well-developed artistic character or personality and avoid the clichés that everyone else naturally takes?

Why did Ponting go south? He was a hired hand whose pictures Scott would use to help recoup the debt incurred by the expedition. (Upon his return to Britain, Ponting was shocked to find that all the rights to his still photos had been sold by Scott.) Ponting was a very successful magazine photographer, and his reputation as a journalist with an ability to create a narrative with images made him a natural choice for the Scott expedition. Ponting published his photos of the Scott expedition in the book The Great White South (1921). Just before his death in 1935, he personally narrated his film 90º South. While not as popular as his book, this documentary gave a first-hand account of the challenges Ponting faced when making his most memorable landscapes. Despite his photographic accomplishments in Antarctica and the public praise of the photos at home, Ponting never again shot still photos. Instead, he put his energies into filmmaking. His photography from the Scott expedition, although only a short chapter of Ponting’s exciting career as an adventure and a travel photographer, remains the most memorable work he produced. Antarctica was the catalyst that ended Ponting’s career as a successful photographer; it’s still a mystery why he gave up photography entirely.

Much of what I knew about Ponting was expounded upon and enhanced by the excellent lecture of the evening, given by artist Grahame Sydney. Sydney is a highly acclaimed New Zealand realist painter who has been working in the medium of watercolor and egg tempera painting for over 30 years. While Ponting might have given his experience on the frozen continent as the reason for giving up photography, Antarctica was the reason Sydney discovered photography. Sydney made two trips to the Scott base in Antarctica in 2003 and 2006. He was invited south by the organization Antarctica New Zealand to take part in its “Artist to Antarctica” program. However, Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures during October and November forced Sydney to abandon working with his preferred medium of pencils and paints. That’s when he turned to photography.

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