Antarctica has long been a region that has fascinated and captivated imaginations, a place that is high in our national consciousness. The stories of the almost incomprehensively heroic and at times tragic early explorations have become the stuff of legends. The South Pole was reached for the first time on the 14 December 1911, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his men beating the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and his party by thirty-four days. 2011 also marks the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition [AAE] led by Australian scientist Douglas Mawson.
Photographing in extreme conditions is difficult even now. That photographers a hundred years ago, armed with large glass plate cameras, were able to capture the images they did is nothing short of miraculous. The National Gallery has a fine holding of stunning large carbon prints by Englishman Herbert Ponting, who accompanied the expedition led by Scott beginning in 1910 which tragically resulted in the death of Scott and his party on their return journey from the Pole; and by Australian Frank Hurley, who was official recorder of for the 1911-14 AAE and also went down in 1914 on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton.
Accompanying these mesmerising photographs of the area shown as heroic, picturesque and sublime – ships caught in the ice, desolate but frighteningly beautiful landscapes, campsites, ponies and the huskies – and of course the penguins – are more recent images of the region by American Eliot Porter, Australians David Stephenson and Peter Dombrovskis and New Zealanders Anne Noble and Megan Jenkinson – images which often focus our attention instead on environmental concerns and the ever present politics of land and place.