When photographer Frank Hurley signed on to document British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole in 1914, he knew he would capture some of the first images of the dark and beautiful unexplored terrain of Antarctica. But after Shackleton’s ship, HMS Endurance, was trapped by the pack ice – and slowly succumbed to its overwhelming pressure – the fate of the expedition, and that of its crew, looked grim. Hundreds of kilometers from inhabited territory and far from busy shipping lanes, they would go unsuccessful for over a year and a half.
Hurley’s photographs, captured on heavy glass negatives, were originally intended to be documents of the expedition’s pioneering scientific research. But after Endurance met its unlucky fate, they recorded something even more extraordinary: the epic survival of 28 men amid extreme physical hardship and mental stress. He captured not only the desolate polar landscape, but the courage and determination of stranded crew members trying to stay warm in subzero temperatures, avoid famine and despair, and pass the time on a pack ice as they watched the destruction in slow motion. of Endurance, their only refuge.
As the photographs show, Hurley had no trouble carrying his heavy camera up the sides of the mountains or in the ship’s rig, to get panoramic views. He even installed a darkroom in the ship – no small feat. As he wrote in his diary: “The darkroom work made extremely difficult by the low temperatures being minus 13 [degrees] C outside. The temperature in the darkroom, near the engine room, is just above zero. Washing [plates] is inconvenient, because the reservoir must be kept warm or the plates become [enclosed] in a block of ice … Development is a source of discomfort for the fingers, which split and split painfully around the nails.
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When the Endurance was finally engulfed in ice after 10 months, taking with it Hurley’s collection of glass plate negatives, the photographer, determined to preserve his work, dove into the icy water to retrieve the negatives and the film. However, Shackleton had different priorities and found the negatives too much to take on their trip. There, Hurley had to make a quick decision on which photographs were most important to keep. He edited over 600 photographs on just over 100 glass plates, smashing the rubbish right on the ice.
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After the ship sank, the crew dragged their lifeboats a few miles, then camped out on the ice for another four months, until it began to crack. They then endured a grueling journey over rough seas to Elephant Island, where the men waited four more months as Shackleton and five others dared to help. Hurley, who had to give up most of his gear after losing Endurance on the ice, carried a Kodak Vest Pocket camera and three rolls of film for the remainder of the race. He shot about three dozen other footage on Elephant Island, as well as the eventual rescue. Every man survived.