Eight Commonwealth women have sledged to the South Pole. A century ago that feat had never been achieved. During my childhood I read every account I could find about Scott’s ill-fated expedition. Ponting’s photographs assisted the words. Part of the fascination was the knowledge that five of the party would die on their return trek from the South Pole.
So it was with interest several years ago I read Spufford’s fascinating book ‘I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination.’ It had Ponting’s most famous photograph. Taken from the frozen sea-ice at the foot of a glacier, the camera was stationed far enough back to register the glacier top on the plate, along with a slender slice of night sky. It shows the whole height of the ice cliff, a chasmed surface.
At the bottom, some way out from the glacier foot, there is a man hitched to a sledge. He is tiny. Closer examination proves he is not real, but a silhouette inked onto the print, posed there to give an indication of scale, like the small coin placed next to a champion pumpkin, his six feet giving the measure for the glacier’s hundreds.
The glacier’s imperturbable grandeur contrasts this emblematic man’s smallness. The picture dramatises the struggle, which will be based upon the difference of size between men and landscape. It sets the men up, of course, for the start of what was at that stage planned to be a successful journey. Ponting took the photograph before they began. It’s an iconic image - the sublime glacier’s indifference to human efforts.