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Images of heroism: A photographer’s visual narrative of Shackleton’s Antarctic failure

- - Thursday, October 4, 2012

In August 1914, Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer, sailed to the Antarctic with the bold objective of being the first to walk across the frozen continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, crossing the South Pole.

But he never got there.

Just one day's sail from the Antarctic shore, his 350-ton wooden, three-masted ship Endurance was trapped in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea and rendered immobile. Untimately, the ship was destroyed by ice pressure and sank, leaving Shackleton and the 27 members of his team stranded.

So how does Shackleton's failed attempt end up as famous and admired as the two successful South Pole expeditions of the same era -- Robert Scott's and Roald Armundsen's?

One reason is that, in failing, Shackleton's expedition became an epic of human endurance, with Shackleton emerging as an outstanding leader who overcame great obstacles to save his team without loss of life.

The other reason is Frank Hurley, the expedition's Australian photographer. His visual record is perhaps mainly why the Endurance story is still very alive and capturing people's imaginations today. When the ship was slowly sinking, Hurley, bare-chested, went into 3 feet of freezing water to save boxes of his glass negative plates from going down with the ship.

Without that desperate act, the Royal Geographical Society in London would not have Hurley's plates in its archives -- and the Ralls Collection gallery in Georgetown wouldn't be showing 35 of his remarkable photographs of the Endurance expedition reproduced from the original plates.

Hurley's photographs of expedition members, sleigh dogs, penguins and, above all, ice have a strong narrative quality. He captures the grandness, beauty and bleakness of the frozen wilderness. Dwarfed in the endless expanse is Shackleton's three-master, seen upright in the early images, then listing as it starts to break up, and finally as flotsam on the surface of ice and murky water.

One night shot of Endurance, white and skeletal with its masts and cross-trees devoid of all its sails, foreshadows the coming disaster.

The fact that Hurley's equipment was cumbersome, including a big box camera, glass plates for making negatives, a tripod and other paraphernalia adds to his achievement. He had a reputation for going to any lengths to get the shot he wanted; and it's clear from some of the photographs that he had hefted his camera considerable distances across the ice to create the desired perspective.

In addition to his photographic equipment, he possessed and used a cine camera; valuable film footage was saved from the wreck and later used in documentaries of the Shackleton expedition.

Gallery owner Marsha Ralls bought the 35 images from the Royal Geographical Society 20 years ago for re-sale, but is only now showing them publicly for the first time because she is unsure whether she wants to sell them. "I've always admired the Shackleton story, in part because I'm a wannabe explorer," Ms. Ralls said Tuesday. "But it was a remarkable achievement, and there have been case studies done on Shackleton's leadership, including one at Harvard."

What Shackleton had named the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition sailed from England a month after the outbreak of World War I. But imprisoned in the ice a world away, the Endurance team had no knowledge of the unfolding devastation.

At first, the team lived on their frozen-fast ship, waiting for the seasonal thaw when the sea would once more become navigable. But over 10 months, the Endurance was crushed, and Shackleton's team with their equipment were forced to spend an additional five months in makeshift camps on the ice floe, which was constantly drifting northward.

When the ice began to melt, Shackleton ordered his men and whatever supplies they could carry into the Endurance's three lifeboats saved from the wreck. In May 1916, the group rowed to uninhabited, inhospitable Elephant Island about 60 miles north -- a hazardous, exhausting crossing that put them on dry land, but with little prospect of being rescued.

Realizing this, Shackleton decided to try to reach the isolated whaling station on South Georgia island. One of the lifeboats -- which Shackleton named the James Caird after the Scottish industrialist who had helped finance the expedition -- was reinforced by the group's carpenter to withstand the heavy seas of the South Atlantic, and Shackleton set sail with five others.

After a dangerous 800-mile crossing that took 16 days -- one of history's greatest open boat journeys -- the group reached its destination. Shackleton was eventually able to organize a rescue of the remainder of his team on Elephant Island, including Hurley, and by 1917 bring them home with no loss of life.

One of Shackleton's first questions on reaching England was, "When did the war end?" But the war was still on, and would drag on into the following year. And the sad postscript to the Endurance story is that some of the younger survivors of the expedition enlisted in the British forces and lost their lives fighting in France.

Hurley became a war photographer. He survived.

WHAT: "The Photographs of Frank Hurley: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917"

WHERE: The Ralls Gallery, 1516 31st St. NW

WHEN: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. through Nov 27.

PHONE: 202/342-1298

WEB: RallsCollection@gmail.com