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The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott

Captain Robert Falcon Scott's photographs in the SPRI Picture Library

10 March - 30 May 2015

R.F. Scott. Lunch camp on the Beardmore Glacier (Copyright SPRI P2012/5/100)Captain Scott's photographs, both the negatives and original set of prints taken on his last expedition (the British Antarctic Expedition, 1910–13 (Terra Nova)) have been secured for the nation. Through the generous support of numerous individuals, groups and organisations, they are now preserved at the Scott Polar Research Institute. These images, many of them unseen for decades, enhance the historical record of Antarctic exploration and provide insights into Scott's profound interests in art and science.

We record our thanks to those members of the public, and to the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Staples Trust and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, who helped the Scott Polar Research Institute to purchase the photographs.

In Antarctica, Scott learned the technical knowledge and aesthetic skills that he would require to take photographs during the journey to the South Pole. His tutor was Herbert Ponting, the expedition's official photographer. Antarctica is one of the most physically and technically challenging places on Earth to use a camera: there is a danger of skin freezing to the metal on the camera, lighting levels are deceptive and composition can be challenge. Despite these hurdles, Scott took photographs of the expedition's base at Cape Evans; the Western Mountains and Ferrar Glacier, and on the Southern Journey from which he and his companions would never return.

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Lost and found: the history of Scott's photographs after the expedition

In the aftermath of the expedition there was confusion about who was authorised to sell the negatives, prints and rights, a situation exacerbated by the outbreak of World War I. In 1935, Herbert Ponting died. In his estate was a set of 109 prints from the photographs taken by Scott. These were purchased by Popperfoto, a photographic agency who in turn sold them at auction in New York in 2001 to a private collector. During the centenary of Scott's last expedition, these prints came on the market.

In the aftermath of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, the prints from Scott's camera, which was returned to base camp by the final supporting party, were developed at Cape Evans by Frank Debenham. In 1913, these were returned to Herbert Ponting in London. There was some confusion over the rights to the images taken by expedition members, a situation exacerbated by the outbreak of World War I. Only a handful of images known to be by Scott were published at the time, as illustrations to the official reports.

In 1935, Herbert Ponting died. In his estate was a set of 109 prints from the photographs taken by Scott. These were purchased by Popperfoto, a photographic agency, who in turn sold them at auction in New York in 2001 to a private collector. During the centenary of Scott's last expedition these prints came onto the market again. With generous support from the public, charitable organisations including the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) and the Staples Trust, and with a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the photographs were purchased by the Scott Polar Research Institute. Subsequently, a previously unknown, second selection of prints also came to light and was generously gifted to SPRI.

Thorough and independent research concluded that there was no record of what had happened to Scott's photographic negatives. They were considered lost. Then, in 2014, a private vendor revealed that they were in possession of 113 of Scott's negatives and asked Christie's auction house to offer the Scott Polar Research Institute first refusal. A deadline of just three months was imposed; failure to raise the necessary funds would see the negatives consigned to auction and, in all likelihood, sold abroad.

Emergency applications for assistance with the purchase were quickly made to the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Arts Council England / Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund. With public support for the campaign from Sir Ranulph Fiennes, numerous and generous donations from the public, companies and organisations provided the match funding which enabled the negatives to be secured for the nation.

Following conservation work and digital copying, the prints and negatives of Scott's photographs are now reunited with the photographs of Ponting and others already in SPRI's collections, and are at last available for research and for the public to view and appreciate.

Early Photography in the Antarctic

Of particular importance in SPRI's collections are the negatives and early prints of the photographs taken during the British Antarctic Expedition, 1910–13. This expedition was led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott who was a proponent of scientific research. Scott pioneered the use of photography to provide faithful illustrations of the work, living quarters and environment encountered on his expeditions. Herbert Ponting, a professional photographer, was employed as the chief photographer for the 1910 expedition, but he could not be everywhere at once and did not go on the longer sledging journeys. At Scott's request, he gave photographic lessons to other members of the expedition. Whilst Ponting's beautiful photographs have gained world-wide fame, the photographs taken by others, including George Murray Levick, Frank Debenham, Tryggve Gran, Griffith Taylor and Charles Wright, also provided a valuable record, particularly of glaciological features and other scientific observations, from which the scientists could illustrate their work.

The men had to learn the technical challenges of using a camera in a few weeks; a skill that had taken Ponting years to master. Captain Scott himself had lessons from Ponting, primarily because he and Henry Bowers would have the responsibility of taking photographs of the journey to the South Pole. Whilst some of the photographs taken by Scott clearly show the errors made by a beginner, for example over exposure or the shadow of an object being used to shade a photograph whilst shooting into the sun, they capture the very essence of the progress he made with his photographic training and the journey that the Southern Party took. They record the physical effort that was needed to reach the South Pole, with the construction of snow walls to shelter the ponies and the struggle of pushing heavily laden sledges in the snow. They depict the peaceful, orderly scenes of camps with tents and equipment and record the beauty of the scenery and the isolation and utter remoteness of the group. They provide an extremely important historical record of part of one of the most famous expeditions to the Antarctic.

It was Henry Bowers, with his lightweight camera, who was chosen by Scott to become the photographer of the final Pole Party, and who so movingly recorded their achievement of reaching the South Pole.

The SPRI Picture Library is a treasure trove of archival photography, covering every aspect of the history of British exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. These images vividly capture the daily life and work of the people who took part in polar expeditions.

The collection includes many negatives which, before the advent of digital technology, were the primary source from which all subsequent photographs were derived. The negatives themselves are vital because an original negative contains all the information of that particular image and is, in itself, an irreplaceable historical document.

Read more about the conservation work undertaken as part of this project here.