Frank Hurley's images of Shackleton's epic voyage to the Antarctic in 1915 have been etched permanently into the psyche of the nation. At the time it took all of Hurley's intimate knowledge of his art and practical sense simply to get them fixed on those fragile glass holders of history. But what kind of impact would Shackleton's survival story have had if Hurley had failed in his efforts, or if even those rudimentary photographic technologies had not been available? We would never have seen the Endurance slowly crumbling under the incessant squeeze of the surrounding ice; the intimate relationship between crew and their dog teams (which were eventually sacrificed for food); or the haunted faces of the crew as Shackleton set off for South Georgia in a last roll of the survival dice. The enduring memories would have relied upon words alone, which, despite the strength of Shackleton's writing skills, would not have captured the emotive power of Hurley's images.
Given the time it took Hurley to set up each photograph and the limited number of glass plates available for shooting, it is amazing that so many became enduring images. At the time, photographing wild places was only for the committed and skilled. The first significant change in exploration photography came when George Eastman launched the lightweight and simple Kodak box camera. With a `press-the-button-and-we-do-the-rest' approach, Eastman's invention enabled people to document their adventures without needing to learn how to develop film. Lieutenant Robert Peary used a Kodak box camera to record his search for the North Pole in 1909.
But it wasn't until the introduction of the 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera that adventure photography really changed and became accessible to anyone. Small, cheap, reliable and easy to use, explorers and adventurers no longer needed an entourage of porters and a master's degree in photographic science. Thirty-six exposure film was neatly loaded into metal canisters that could survive life on the road, and various lenses could be used with the same camera body to alter the viewpoint. Plus, where Hurley et al saw the world upside down through their view cameras, SLRs enabled photographers to see their subject oriented correctly. But not all the problems of shooting images in extreme places were solved--film can still freeze and snap, and batteries can die in the cold--but in comparison, modern adventure-photographers have a stress-flee existence.
An explosion in expedition imagery also served to bring celebrity status to some of the more daring and charismatic characters involved, such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Chris Bonington. In the increasing competition for personal and expedition sponsorship, photography has become a key tool in securing finance to push the limits of exploration and challenge. Large and progressive companies such as Dyson, Berghaus, Motorola and Sector Watches sign sizeable funding cheques in the belief that having their logo or equipment associated with these adventurers reflects well on consumer perceptions of their own company dynamism and ethics. …