Early Antarctic explorers captured images that are the envy of modern photographers, reports Liz Light.

An ice cave frames a distant tall ship. White icicles hang from the front of the cave juxtaposed with, but not quite reaching, the dark, pointed spars of Terra Nova.

The interplay of light and texture, the luminosity of the cave, the dappled sky and icy sea make a perfect composition. And, technically, the photographer, Herbert Ponting, has superb control over the depth of field, with both foreground and background crisply in focus. He took this image 100 years ago using primitive gear and sensitive emulsions in sub-zero temperatures.

This is one of many sublime images in The Heart of the Great Alone exhibition showing at the Canterbury Museum. The extensive exhibition includes photography by Ponting, who accompanied Scott's 1910 to 1913 Antarctic expedition and by Frank Hurley, the photographer for Ernest Shackleton's expedition two years later.

The Heart of the Great Alone shows what life was like for these great Antarctic explorers with images, memorabilia, maps and an informative commentary.


But, aside from its educational aspects, it's an extraordinary photographic collection, humbling to contemporary photographers who have the advantage of 100 years of technology in their complex digital cameras but can't create images more beautiful than some of these.

For New Zealanders, a particularly pertinent image by Ponting is The Ramparts of Mount Erebus, the first photograph of the mountain that later took the lives of 257 people when Flight 901 crashed.

The dramatic image, with the volcanic mountain smoking in the background, shows the overwhelming power of the ice in contrast to a tiny person pulling a sledge.

Ponting brought the first images of the frozen landscapes of Antarctica to the world. He left the ice on Terra Nova with eight others when Scott made his ill-fated attempt to be the first to the South Pole.

Ponting's superb images were not fully appreciated on is return to Britain and though he continued with photographic work it did not go well and he died, aged 65, without the recognition he deserved.

Frank Hurley, who accompanied Ernest Shackleton's expedition on the Endurance between 1914 and 1916, fared rather better after his return from the ice, with talks, movies and accolades being temporarily interrupted, in 1917, when he became a war photographer with the Australian military. This daredevil photographer, known for the risks he took to get his images, lived to see his work applauded; he died aged 77 in 1962.

Hurley's mission, for Shackleton, was to focus on documenting the expedition but he was also a brilliant artistic photographer. He had the dubious pleasure of recording the gradual crushing of the battered Endurance when, in the spring ice break-up in 1915, the ship slowly succumbed to extreme pressure and slipped beneath moving iceflows. He then had to discard hundreds of his images and select just 120 of them they were large glass plates for the trek over ice to Ross Island. The Heart of the Great Alone is a tribute, too, to the beauty and subtlety of black and white photography.

I'm told the Antarctic is vividly coloured with blues, purple and greens melding with a thousand shades of snow. Maybe so but I've not seen images of it as exquisite as these.


* The heart of the Great Alone, Robert McDougall Gallery, Canterbury Museum. Adults $15, children $8. This collection belongs to Her Majesty the Queen and is only on show in Christchurch. Ends February 20.

Where to stay: Try Hotel So, in the heart of the city. Reasonably priced, (from $69), ultra modern, funky in a designer-Tokyo way. Highly recommended.