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Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott

I'm afraid I've been too busy with other things to write a new blog post this week, but as part of my ongoing commitment to keep it all killer, no filler, I've got a card up my sleeve. So in the style of the cookery show of your choice, here's one I did earlier.

Lower Glacier Depot, Beardmore Glacier, one hundred years ago today; photo taken by Captain Scott

Sunday, 4 December 2011

British Services Antarctic Expedition 2012 (BSAE2012) Farewell Dinner

Last night, I went to the Farewell Dinner for the British Services Antarctic Expedition 2012 (BSAE2012), the companion expedition to the (civilian) ISCE2012. The venue was the magnificent Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, whose baroque firmament of a ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill over 17 years. Payment was by the yard; perhaps a precursor to today’s controversial government practice of ‘Payment by Results’...


After dinner, there was a rousing round of toasts and heartfelt speeches, which pithily captured what inspirational figures and endeavours the BSAE2012 will celebrate and emulate. The Director of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr Rita Gardner, reminded us of how Scott and his men were dedicated to research to the last – even as their strength faded, they refused to jettison 14 kg of rock samples that were later used to formulate a unifying geological theory, that of plate tectonics.

The BSAE2012 is logistically complex. 24 men and women from all three military services will land on the Antarctic Peninsula from the sea and split into two teams  which will interweave paths, including a new traverse of Antarctandes. The rich scientific programme will touch on climate change, meteorite compositional analysis and sports psychology/sociology in extreme conditions.

Kathryn, behind the electric candleabra, also came to Norway

The link between the ISCE2012 and the BSAE2012 is strong. When we had our first (ISCE) selection challenge in April, this was hosted by Lt Cdr Paul Hart at the Royal Naval training dry dock of HMS Raliegh. Both expeditions jointly fly the banner of the ‘Spirit of Scott’ and adopt a Tennyson line for their motto which it’s hard to say out loud without sitting a bit taller: ‘To Strive, To Seek, To Find and Not To Yield’.


The evening made me think about just how much work goes into making any endeavour of interest a success. I also felt great excitement for Henry that he’ll have an adventure of his own next year with the ISCE2012. For my part, yesterday’s dinner was an unforgettable coda to this phase of my involvement with the ISCE2012. It’s been a fantastic experience that has sent my life in a Constance Spry spray of new directions. Correctly, the focus must now be on getting Henry & Co. there and back to cap the centenary celebrations in November 2012 – I hope to find a way to contribute to this in a small way behind the scenes, if I can.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rachel Hazell & her Antarctic bookworks

I recently met the artist Rachel Hazell, a book artist whose work I admire (website here). I’m particularly drawn to her Antarctic bookworks, informed by her experiences of visiting and living there. I more or less doorstepped her on her last trip to London and she kindly answered my nosy questions:


What was your initial attraction to Antarctica?

I was in South America, taking photographs of glaciers. A friend said I should apply for an artist’s residency. I did a semicircumnavigation of Antarctica, from South America to New Zealand. We did landings at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, where Scott and Shackleton’s huts are. It was very, very moving. Scott’s hut had damage from over the winter. Ice had backed up on the walls. Snow was melting on to it. Scott’s hut had a more sombre atmosphere. Shackleton’s hut felt warmer or cheerier. I don’t know if I just imagined that, knowing what happened.

Do you feel that bookworks fit well with the Antarctic landscape or did you feel you were working in opposition with your medium to generate the forms you wanted?

I saw books and paper in Antarctica. I would like to take it further. I would like to write a book on the paperiness of Antarctica. I’ll give you an example. The crevasse lines on a snow field look like a page of notepaper with writing on. The striations where a glacier has ground lines into a sea bed look like the pages of a book. It might not seem an obvious link because ice is wet, but paper comes from water. The creation of paper is a very wet process.

Do you aim for a figurative representation or a more symbolic depiction?

I’m still trying. I do want them to be quite figurative. When I got back from Antarctica, I could hardly sleep. It wasn’t just jetlag. I would look back over old physical geography textbooks and learn about glacier tongues and so on. We may not have an indigenous language in Antarctica, so we don’t have 50 words for snow or whatever, but the descriptions we do have are very graphic: growlers; bergy bits; porridge!

What are your thoughts on people visiting Antarctica? 30 000 tourists went last year.

The numbers are down by 8000 from the year before. I hope that they can be ambassadors for the continent when they get back. It’s a delicate ecosystem. IATTO [International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators] does a great job.

Have you read Scott’s Journals?

Yes, I read them as a teenager, and biographies that portrayed him as a hero. I read about Cherry-Garrard; by Sara Wheeler. But I also read Huntford, a reevaluation. What comes across to me is that for Amundsen, it was about the competition and reaching the pole. That was it. But with Scott, there was so much more. He’s passed so much  knowledge and data to us that we’re still using – it’s just priceless what he’s left us.

What next?

Antarctic paperworks are not over. At the moment, I’m focusing on being a bookbinder closer to home. The Sun Valley Art Gallery, Idaho, will exhibit my Antarctic work soon.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks

Statue of Peter Scott at WWT Barnes Wetlands Centre (picture credit: Michael Reeve)

On Thursday, I went to the launch of Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks. This book comprises a careful selection of pencil drawings and watercolours done by Dr Wilson, who accompanied Captain Scott as Chief of Scientific Staff, confidant and friend on both the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions to Antarctica. Fittingly, the launch was held at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Barnes, London as the WWT was founded by Sir Peter Scott, Captain Scott’s son.

Dr Edward Wilson’s great nephews, Dr David Wilson (ISCE Chairman) and Christopher Wilson explained that they wrote the book in the hope that the images will inspire a new generation of scientists and conservationists. David Wilson highlighted what an extraordinary seed Captain Scott planted when he wrote in a parting letter to his wife for her to ‘make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games’. How much easier if would have been to say, ‘make the boy join the navy’ or ‘send him to a top school’.

Christopher and David Wilson

The ramifications of this mindful parenting bequest are staggering. Peter Scott helped to found the world conservation movement, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose panda logo he designed. David Attenborough made no bones about our debt to Scott, Wilson and their colleagues.

David Attenborough. He recalled his first visit to Scott's Hut on Cape Evans, Antarctica: 'There was a musty smell of rope, tar and antiquity.' He added that, 'If I ever believed in personality after death, that was it.'

David Attenborough said that Peter Scott’s conservation efforts succeeded in a way that was possible for the first time. I imagine he meant that worldwide broadcasting was still new, and that ecological understanding was freshly mature enough to support large-scale conservation efforts. It seemed right for this sentiment to be expressed by David Attenborough of all people, given that his very successes have also coincided with landmarks in pioneering mass media, e.g. colour television.

This reminded me of something expressed by the artist Ben Coode-Adams, who is currently matching Captain Scott’s mileage on a daily basis until March 29th (he blogs with inimitable frankness here - I don't arrive at almost any of the same conclusions as he does, though): one of the bases of his interest in Captain Scott’s story is the notion of ‘being of your time’. It’s difficult to imagine that a broadcaster today can make as big a splash as David Attenborough now that we have hundreds of digital channels; and it’s doubtful any terrestrial explorer is going to capture the public's imagination as much as Captain Scott and his men have.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Norway - training and selection

Joe, me and Henry

Well, it’s been an incredible fortnight! I joined the other three remaining ISCE2012/Telegraph Competition candidates for a training/selection event in Norway. We were based in Gargia, 69°N, i.e. 800 km within the Arctic Circle. Our base was a fjellstue or travellers’ lodge along the Beskades Highway. Our local host, Per-Thore Hansen, explained to us that the government spaced these waystations approximately 33 miles apart so that passersby could take shelter in stormy/blizzardy conditions. Most of these fjellstue were bombed off the map in WWII, but have been rebuilt and privatised.

When we weren’t pinching ourselves, we were steeped in polar adventure training. The first few days were quite gentle. We were lectured on various aspects of cold weather survival, including first aid, historical precedence and communications. The Deputy Expedition Leader, Geoff Somers, (adventurer and serial Antarctic revenant) impressed on us the contrast between the absolute isolation of Scott’s crew in Antarctica and the connectivity of modern expeditioners, who are required to radio in updates every two days.

After some preparatory practical learning (tent routines; working the gas pressure stoves), we set out for a week in the wilderness. Henry and I shared a tent with Geoff, while Joe and Kathryn shared with Antony Jinman, Expedition Leader. Starting at 100 m above sea level, we hiked uphill, above the tree line (200 m) to approximately 400 m, where the terrain was characterised by tundra. It’s been an unseasonably balmy November in Finnmark (northern Norway), so there was only enough snow cover to cross-country ski on one day. I’d never worn skis before, so I did my best to discredit Per-Thore’s ‘bambi-on-ice’ predictions!

Learning to pull a pulk (sled) was an initiation right in itself. We negotiated turns, snags, bogs and stream-lets, marvelling how much less energy it takes to pull a load than to carry it in a backpack. Sadly, winter days are short in the arctic, so we soon grew accustomed to being in our tents for extended periods, swaddled like Russian infants. I felt that Henry, Geoff and I made a happy unit, and I’m sure the other three got to know each other well, too.

However, my favourite moments were when we were on the move, calmly alert (pacing, keeping an eye out for stragglers and regulating our ‘clothing systems’ for temperature control) and alive to our achromatic surroundings. I’d never seen so much snow in my life. At times I felt as though a fifth chamber would open in my heart to take in the Northern Lights, the powdery crunch underfoot and the slate, Nordic horizon.

We were asked to blog throughout our adventure, so for a day-by-day snapshot, please click here or here. More pictures to follow.

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Hot off the press: Henry has won the ISCE2012 competition. Henry's a good egg and a very deserving winner. Well done, Henry!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Off to Alta

Northern lights in Finnmark, Norway. Alta is the administrative centre of Finnmark. [Picture credit: visitnorway.com]

Dear all

I'm off to Alta, Norway this Friday for the last selection event. I can't contain my excitement! Anyway, just to let you know that I won't be updating this blog (or my YouTube, Facebook or Twitter pages) until I'm back on the 8th of Nov. In the meantime, depending on remote internet connection strength, you might be able to keep tabs on our adventure on the official ISCE2012 website. Please keep your fingers crossed for me. :)

Warm wishes
ali

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Heart of the Great Alone

This morning I went to ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’, a look at the achievements of Captains Scott and Shackleton through the photographers’ lens. This engrossing exhibition opened on Friday at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and will run all the way through to 15 April 2012.

"Castle Berg" - they returned to this berg several times. [Photo by: Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The structure of the exhibition encourages the visitor to play ‘spot the difference’ between Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s Endeavour expedition, as the photographs from each were displayed in separate sections, largely chronologically. The majority of the photographs on display were taken by Herbert Ponting and by Frank Hurley, respectively. Both were professional photographers of considerable experience and skill, but they were employed in subtly different capacities, which showed in their results.

Captain Scott had taken on Ponting as a ‘camera artist’, so the emphasis was on artful composition and capturing the imagination. This was the first time a professional photographer’s role was included on an official expedition’s payroll, mostly because Captain Scott had seen how popular the Discovery expedition photos had been with the public, and he was keen to capitalise on this interest. This was a prescient move, given the landslide of critical acclaim for Ponting’s film ‘The Great White Silence’, though Captain Scott himself never saw how his foresight bore fruit.

The silvery glint of the moon on the sea as it freezes [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

In contrast, Hurley was taken on as a documentarian; to chronicle the narrative of Shackleton’s venture. Hurley’s shots have a more rapid-fire, forensic quality than Ponting’s, though both rose to the exigencies of Antarctic conditions with ingenuity: Hurley’s flashlit study of HMS Endeavour trapped in the ice is a spectral portrait reminiscent of the Mary Celeste.

These photographs were given as a gift to King George V shortly after the First World War, and have been in the Royal Collection since then. It struck me how familiar so many of the photographs are; how they’ve slipped into the public parlance of what Antarctica ‘looks like’. I’m not clear whether the photographs are held in the collection  as negatives or prints, but it was impossible not to notice that Ponting’s folio offerings dwarfed Hurley’s quartos, with obvious implications on how prominently I can remember whose photos!

Ponting thought carefully about what development treatments to give each print, often choosing carbon or silver gelatine on white backing, but he would shift the ink chromaticity towards red or green, or even print on coloured card to hint at the colours he saw.

It’s clear from Captain Scott’s journals that the expedition plans would bend to accommodate Ponting’s compositional wishes, even influencing the precise position of campsites, but Ponting was never taken on extended trips across the ice, as Hurley was.


'The ramparts of Mt Erebus' [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The standout print for me is one titled ‘The ramparts of Mt Erebus’, which ticks the ‘rule of thirds’ box vertically: topmost is Erebus itself; the middle is a colossal stack of ice and the squashed bottom is ground level, including a toy soldier-like figure for scale. It reminds me of a late ancient Egyptian portrait device, where the majority of the picture would be the main story itself (the crushing majesty of nature, in this case) and the painter would be indulged with a miniature of an icon in the corner (often taken from the painter’s life) as a reminder of man’s insignificance.

Have you been to see this show? What did you think?

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As you might know, I'm off to Alta, Norway soon and have been humming with excitement for weeks. My rucksack's packed now and there's just four clear days between me and Norway. Can't. Wait.

About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.