A century ago last April, Robert E Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole and was duly feted for being the first to stand at the 'top' of the world. This conquest was soon followed by the now legendary race between Britain's Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen to be first to the South Pole. Photography played a vital role in documenting these and other landmark polar expeditions of the early 20th century, but there are two names who stand above all others: Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley.
Ironically, Ponting and Hurley weren't members of triumphant expeditions: Ponting stayed behind during Scott's ill-fated final dash for the South Pole in 1912, and Hurley nearly froze to death while documenting Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17. Both were prolific and imaginative photographers who defied the extreme conditions and the difficulty presented by their equipment to capture scenes of wonder that still amaze nearly 100 years on.
Hurley and Ponting worked with heavy plate cameras and bulky wooden tripods, but this didn't deter either man from making hundreds of exposures and attempting the audacious to achieve unique angles and perspectives. For example, Hurley often clambered high up the rigging of Shackleton's famous ship, Endurance, cumbersome kit in hand, in order to obtain bird's-eye views from the masts. Ponting didn't go to such daredevil heights but his portfolio of polar landscapes is still regarded as among the greatest collection of polar images ever made.
Compared to the tools of Hurley and Ponting, the cameras and lenses used by today's expedition photographers are lighter, faster and more versatile. Satellite, wireless and digital technologies mean polar expeditions can be tracked from space, websites updated with a constant stream of blogs, stills and video footage, and precious pictures with live interview links relayed to media centres across the globe.
However, the role of today's polar photographer is markedly different to that of the pioneers. He or she is more likely to be trekking to the pole in order to photograph an environment that's disappearing as global temperatures continue to rise. This is most evident in the Arctic, which is a frozen but fragile layer of sea ice, moving constantly with the swell of the ocean below, pulled by tides, breaking and crashing, thawing and freezing, yet shrinking at an alarming rate.
The thawing of the ice makes today's expeditions increasingly dangerous and difficult, and some past deeds are unlikely to be attempted again. For example, Sir Wally Herbert's astonishing feat of leading the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean--on foot and by dog sledge--in 1968-69 is unlikely to be repeated. Scientists have measured a 40 per cent reduction in the thickness of the Arctic ice cap in the 40 years since his four-man, 40-dog team trekked 6,115 kilometres from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen, via the North Pole. Instead of documenting similar feats of endurance and exploration, expeditions into the Arctic Circle are now concerned with discovering when the Arctic Ocean is likely to become totally ice-free.
THE TOOLS OF THE JOB
British photographer Martin Hartley is arguably the world's leading polar photographer, having made numerous trips to both ends of the Earth, most recently as a member of Pen Hadow's 2009 Catlin Arctic Survey expedition, which routinely measured the thickness of the Arctic ice every day for the duration of the trip (see page 28). Hartley relied on a customised Nikon D3X digital SLR and high-capacity memory cards to record the images. He also packed a small Panasonic Lumix digital compact that stood up to the conditions better than expected. Indeed, the little camera was used to take the 'picture of the day' that Hartley posted on the expedition website every morning. …