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Antarctic conservation blog archive

Herbert Ponting

Carla, Tuesday 15 April 2008

His joy is to reproduce its pictures artistically, his grief is to fail to do so. -Captain Robert Scott, 1911

Herbert Ponting began his career in photography relatively late in life. After moving from Salisbury England to California in his early twenties, he dabbled unsuccessfully in mining and fruit-farming before turning to photography. He became correspondent on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and afterwards continued to travel around Asia, exploring Burma, Korea, Java, China and India. During this time he delivered magnificently created images back to newspapers, periodical and magazines, and in 1910 released his book In Lotus-land Japan.

In 1911 Ponting joined Scott’s British Terra Nova Expedition, which set out to collect scientific data about the Antarctic continent, with its main goal to reach the South Pole. Ponting was the first professional photographer on an Antarctic expedition and went on to set other precedents in Antarctica. He took some of the first still colour photographs in Antarctica using autochrome plates, and was one of the first men to use a cinematograph to capture short video sequences on the ice.

Herbert Ponting with his camera © Canterbury Museum

Herbert Ponting with his camera © Canterbury Museum

Herbert Ponting photographing a skua © Canterbury Museum

Herbert Ponting photographing a skua © Canterbury Museum

Coining the term to ‘pont’, meaning ‘to pose until nearly frozen, in all sorts of uncomfortable positions’, Ponting thought it imperative to get the picture just right. On the expedition he could often be found rigging up a device to allow himself to suspend from the ship, sometimes creating risky situations for himself and other crewmates.

Herbert Ponting leaving Terra Nova © Canterbury Museum

Herbert Ponting leaving Terra Nova © Canterbury Museum

During his fourteen months at Cape Evans he documented the Antarctic landscape, wildlife and expedition life, and often kept the men entertained by showing lantern slides of his travels through Asia.

Ponting showing lantern slides of Japan © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Judged too old at the age of forty-two to sustain another gruelling year on the ice, Ponting, along with eight other men, was sent home after the first year of the expedition. Back in England he was devastated to learn of the deaths of Scott and the Polar Party. He spent the remainder of his life lecturing on Antarctica and the expedition to ensure that the splendour of Antarctica and the heroism of Scott and his men would not be forgotten. His book The Great White South was published in 1921, and in 1933 his moving footage in full sound version Ninety Degrees South: With Scott to The Antarctic was released.

Herbert Ponting brought an artistic eye to this cold and harsh continent, creating images that would greatly influence another photographer, Frank Hurley of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, who we will meet in my next blog.

6 Responses to “Herbert Ponting”

  1. Paul Capewell says:

    Fascinating, thanks for this write-up. Look forward to more photography-related Antarctic insight.

  2. Kim Reid says:

    Hey Carla! Really enjoy reading your blog and seeing what your are up to. It all seems so neat! Hope you’re well.

  3. Pete says:

    You put together a very exciting piece. Can the book and film be purchased now? The clarity of the photos he took was outstanding for that era and with the film and cameras available. Sounds like the chap lived an exciting life; what age did he die and what country? Keep writing these great blogs. Wish your blog was longer. Stay warm…

  4. Chris Pickard says:

    I have a copy of the Great White South (9th impression Jan 1930) with a hand written message inside: “To A. Gray Pickard who has done so much for photography - with gratitude and most sincere regards, H.G.Ponting.”
    Arthur Gray Pickard was my grandfather and then managing director of the Thornton Pickard Camera Co. of Altrincham, Manchester. I wondered if Ponting took any Thornton Pickard cameras on the Scott expedition.
    If anyone knows anything about the kit that Ponting took with him I would be interested to hear about it.

  5. Fiona says:


    We have looked through our collection database for a Thornton Pickard and nothing registered. We do have one camera we have just conserved but it has no brand identification on it. That’s not to say a Pickard wasn’t taken – there’s over 8,000 artefacts at Captain Scott’s base and our conservation team will be working through the collection over the next four years. SPRI has a great resource and recently launched their Freeze Frame Project which contains thousands of images from the expedition so you may want to check that out:

  6. Stephen Burke says:

    Herbert Ponting was my mothers great uncle, as a family we where alway interested in his travel history.
    We had different pictures of him in anartica, he must have been an interesting person.