As the first professional photographer to be included in an Antarctic expedition, Herbert Ponting was a pioneer in the realm of expedition photo- and cinematography. Having travelled with the Terra Nova Expedition, he has captured some of the most enduring photographs during the height of Antarctic exploration.
Herbert Ponting was born in 1870 in Salisbury, England. His father was a successful banker and the Ponting family moved around England a considerable amount during Herbert’s youth.
At the age of 18, Herbert settled in Liverpool, and embarked on a career in banking. But after 4 years behind the desk, wanderlust set in and Herbert set off for the West Coast of the United States, assisted by a considerable gift from his father.
It was in the USA where Ponting acquired an interest in the relatively new art of Photography. He entered a series of competitions and his talent was spotted. In 1900, after the farm he had purchased years before went bust, Ponting took up Photography professionally.
In the following years, Ponting was commissioned by a number of magazines to tour the world and take photos. He travelled to South-East Asia in 1901, covered the Russo-Japanese war for Harper’s Weekly in 1904, travelled to China and India in 1906, and through Russia and Europe in 1907.
Ponting’s best-known work was his photographs from the Antarctic. Selected from over 100 applicants, Ponting was selected by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to be his photographer on the Terra Nova Expedition. Ponting had to travel with all the equipment needed to produce photos in the Antarctic – cameras, lenses, wet plates, chemicals. He even built a tiny darkroom in the Antarctic.
It was an incredibly difficult environment to take good photos. He had to work without gloves, risking frostbite. The temperature difference between the inside of the expedition hut and the outside meant that Ponting had to keep his kit outside otherwise condensation would instantly form on the lenses rendering them useless. To prevent wet plates getting ruined, they had to be taken indoors very carefully, sometimes it could take up to two days to bring a wet plate indoors.