The Scott Expedition to the South Pole ended 100 years ago today, but still can be experienced through photo and film.
The George Eastman House Photography Collection has a small, but intriguing set of documentation from the ill-fated attempt by the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and his team of four to reach the South Pole a century ago. The Scott Expedition resulted in the collection of numerous scientific specimens and more than 1,000 photographs and reels of film documenting the journey. But it all ended when Scott lost his life during the expedition 100 years ago today, March 29, 1912.
Lieut. Henry R. Bowers (British, 1883 – 1912) Descriptive Title: At the South Pole, Petty Officer Evans (foreground), Robert F. Scott, and Dr. Wilson at the site of the Norwegian flag left by Roald Amundsen and his team, who had beaten the Scott Expedition to be the first to reach the Pole by just 5 weeks. January 18, 1912
The Eastman House collection includes one nitrate negative (8 x 10.5 cm.) and 29 clips of motion picture film (about five to seven frames each). This is not by any means the only surviving photographic record of the final Scott Expedition, though one wonders how and when the negative made its way from the Antarctic to Rochester, N.Y. Sources point to Charles F. Hutchison, who apparently acquired them from George Eastman. Hutchison lived next door to Eastman, was a Kodak employee, and was married to Eastman’s personal secretary.
The significance of the these images lies in the serendipitous and timely discovery at the Museum of this footage, and in their power to engage the imagination into the day-to day activities — and one bittersweet moment — in the lives of these men.
The negative and clips were discovered during the inventory of materials stored in the nitrate holding area of the museum in preparation for transfer to a new vault at Eastman House’s Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. Here is what is written on the glassine envelope by an unknown museum staff member: “These negatives were evidently sent to Mr. Eastman by Ponting, and given to the Eastman House by Mr. Hutchinson.” [sic] [Long-term EKC employee and friend of George Eastman, Charles F. Hutchison, 1875-1974].
The Scott Expedition yielded more than 1,000 photographs and film reels taken and processed by Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935) in a self-built darkroom/bedroom on the Ross Ice Shelf. Ponting, who joined the team in 1910, was the first professional photographer attached to such an expedition and first to use both color plates (autochromes) and motion picture film in the Antarctic. He had hoped the material would provide a narrative of the expedition that Captain Scott might use for lectures and fundraising upon return to England 1913, but that was not to be.
On January 17, 1912, instead of being able to lay claim to the “discovery” of the South Pole, Scott and his team had the awful experience of “discovery” of the little tent and the Norwegian flag planted there on December 14, 1911 by Roald Amundsen and his five-man team. Scott later wrote in his diary, “It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come … Tomorrow we must march on … and then hasten home … All the daydreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.”
Scott and two members of his team died of cold and starvation, on the determined date of March 29, trapped in their tent only 11 miles from a supply depot. The two other members of the team had died earlier on the return trek from the Pole. The bodies of all five were discovered eight months later.
By the turn of the 20th Century, most of the world had been mapped. However, the huge continent of Antarctica was largely unexplored. This sparked “The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” the 25-year period from 1897-1922 when 16 major expeditions launched by eight different countries took place.
Most poignant of all the Eastman House material is the moment captured in the single negative. The pencil inscription on the envelope identifies it: “This is one of the negatives which were taken on a roll of Kodak film on January 18th, 1912 – by Lieut H.R. Bowers at the South Pole. It shows the discovery by Captain Scott of the little tent left there by the Norwegian explorer, Capt. Amundsen, who forestalled [sic] Scott by 34 days. On right foreground, Petty Officer Evans / [on] left Captain Scott. / Middle Dr. Wilson.”
Less dramatic in impact perhaps are the 29 clips of motion picture film, which, however, document what are the real accomplishments of these intrepid explorers — the vast amount of scientific data and specimens that were observed and collected that would occupy the world’s scientific communities for decades to come.
Below: Selections from the expedition’s 35 mm nitrocellulose motion picture film strips, ca.1910-1912
Joe Struble is a native Rochesterian and has lived here all his life with the exception of 4 years spent in Richmond, Virginia where he received a Master’s Degree in Social Work. He has been employed in the Photo Collection at George Eastman House as Assistant Archivist from 1989-2005 and as Archivist beginning in March 2005. One of his greatest satisfactions is in discovery and in adding to the knowledge of material in the Photo Collection.
Roxana Aparicio Wolfe is the Curator of Education and Online Communities at George Eastman House.