GRIT - Portraits of Antarctic Explorers
Words, Photos, and Video by: Lucy Carty
The Wild Places
Landscape for me is all about the wild places. It’s an artistic realm in which I’m able to escape the complications and inconveniences of human presence and focus solely on the spellbinding environmental processes that mould, etch and colour the earth. Fascinating geological features like geothermal vents, glaciers, lava lakes and mountain ranges are my muses and nature an invisible mentor, guiding creative experimentation.
In 2016, I was awarded an Artist’s Residency in Antarctica with The Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute and it was with notions of this wildest of wild places that I set off full of anticipation to journey south on board HMS Protector, The Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship. Images I had in mind of this terra incognita - its untouched, untamed landscape of gigantic tabular bergs, wind-sculpted cornices and glacier-cloaked mountains thrust up from the floor of the Southern Ocean - thrilled me and filled my head with ideas of work to come.
In Antarctica with HMS Protector
I wanted to explore Antarctica through the eyes of time and space on a scientific and geological level, to bear witness to the power and the ultimate fragility of the landscape - from macro photographs of ice crystals through to satellite photography and time lapse imagery of the entire continent. I wanted to learn about concepts such as Mass Balance - the complex interplay of snow and ice accumulation and loss in a glacier - to watch icebergs calve into the sea, much as a body grows and sheds its skin. Antarctica’s surrounding sea ice expands and contracts as seasons come and go in such a way as to give it breath. It is a continent alive.
Credits: NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio, NASA/GSFC, JAXA
Humans Really Have No Place Here
But, as the coldest, driest, windiest, most uninhabitable place on earth it is also a continent that threatens human life at any given moment. High up on its interior plateau scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre recorded the world’s lowest ever temperature of minus 98 degrees celsius. A windchill of just minus 45 degrees celsius can cause frostbite in about five minutes. As one of the researchers put it, “Humans really have no place here”. But, it was in this frozen wilderness that I happened upon a human story of resilience, camaraderie and survival so compelling that it began to capture my imagination and chip away at my natural instincts to focus solely on the landscape. And, through a series of natural connections and coincidences, a work evolved that I had not at all expected.
The Story of the Endurance
The story began in August 1914, when famous polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set about on an expedition to be the first man to cross Antarctica from coast to coast, via the South Pole. This courageous plan, officially named The Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition, involved two ships - The Endurance would travel to The Weddell Sea on one side of the continent with the men who would undertake the crossing and a second ship, The Aurora, would travel to The Ross Sea on the other side, where a support team would lay food and fuel depots for the men to pick up along the latter part of the journey. Unfortunately, Shackleton’s Endurance became trapped in the thick pack ice before she could reach the coast at Vahsel Bay, where the men were due to begin their crossing.
Stuck fast, Endurance drifted with the floe for eight months, gradually succumbing to the crushing pressure. Over a period of weeks the ship sank, masts and rigging finally disappearing on 21 November 1915, leaving the crew stranded and forced to camp out on the ice. They tried to haul their three lifeboats, but the boats were too heavy and the jagged pack ice too difficult a terrain and so were left to wait for the floes to break up. Five months on and 497 days since they had last set foot on land the men finally arrived at Elephant Island in the South Shetlands.
However, the story was far from over. Shackleton knew there was still no chance of rescue in this remote place and despite knowing the severe risks, he and five other men set off to get help in the largest of the lifeboats, The James Caird, sailing an epic journey of eight hundred nautical miles across some of the most dangerous ocean in the world to reach the coast of South Georgia. Shackleton and two of the men then had to trek non-stop for thirty-six hours over unmapped, glacier-clad mountains to finally reach the safety of Stromness Whaling Station, where a rescue mission was immediately set in motion to save the men left behind on Elephant Island.
Antarctica’s surrounding sea ice expands and contracts as seasons come and go in such a way as to give it breath. It is a continent alive.
Battered by storms, the men there had to quickly build a shelter and led by Shackleton’s Second-in-Command, Frank Wild, they upturned the two remaining lifeboats, raising them up on rocks to create what they named "The Snuggery”. It measured 18 feet by 9 feet by 5 feet at its highest point. Twenty-two men lived and survived in this improvised hut for four and half months.
The official expedition photographer Frank Hurley had built a makeshift stove, and expedition physicist Reginald James describes the scene vividly in his diary:
“This stove is a remarkable thing in its way... Two things can now be cooked at once on it which materially economises fuel. One man each day takes his turn as fireman. The job requires care and attention, but with a little practice an extremely hot fire can be obtained with penguin skins.
It is easy to imagine, when one considers the blubber fire, which often smokes, and the smoky lamps, what our faces and hands are like. Few of us would be recognised if we were suddenly transported to our family circles. Certainly everyone would recoil from us in horror. No doubt our odour is not too sweet, though as we all probably smell alike we don’t smell one another.
The principal sources of contamination are blubber oil, soot and little bits of reindeer hair from finneskoe and sleeping bags. These materials form a kind of patchy layer of dirt on the face and not a uniform layer of grime. On some people it seems to stick much more than on others. By means of a damp sock once in a while one can keep the worst of it off.”
With considerable help from the Chilean Government and after three failed attempts due to thick pack ice, Shackleton finally managed to reach his men on the 30 August 2016. It had been over two years since the crew of the Endurance had first left England. The men were frail and exhausted, but Wild had never lost hope and Shackleton, under impossible conditions and against all the odds, brought every single man home alive.
1. small loose particles of stone or sand
2. courage and resolve; strength of character
In November 2015, I visited an exhibition at The Royal Geographical Society called The Enduring Eye, which showcased many of Frank Hurley’s recently digitised expedition photographs to great effect. Together with artefacts from the expedition, it led visitors on an immersive and emotional re-telling of this remarkable story. I was particularly intrigued by the display of Hurley’s original glass plate negatives - delicate pieces of glass that under such difficult circumstances had so carefully been looked after and which Shackleton and Hurley both knew to be priceless in their capacity to convey the drama of the expedition.
It was around the same time as The Enduring Eye that I had been introduced to a technique called verre eglomisé, which involves painting and gilding on glass. A friend thought it would be an interesting way to convey the scenery I was to see in Antarctica the following year. I began studying different ways of patinating the glass, including the use of smoke and noticed that if I accidentally rested my hand in the soot, mountain textures, cracks and crevasses formed from the imprints of my skin. But, it was when I inadvertently put a piece of test glass down on top of a sketchbook that happened to be open to a drawing of Shackleton, that I glanced down and saw a hero staring back at me through the ice and the dirt.
Grit, the work that evolved from these coincidences, is an ongoing series of twenty-eight portraits - one for each member of the Endurance crew, that unites the strength and resolve of these brave men with the landscape that held them captive. Source images of some of the crew, particularly the lower ranking men are limited and the quality varies enormously. However, sketching from images on my computer means that I can zoom in on particular features or use filters to try and define details that are difficult to make out with the naked eye. I then scan the drawings and invert a copy so that I can place it behind the soot-covered glass to work in reverse. Metal leaf is applied using gelatine, a nod to the silver nitrate emulsions used to coat the old glass plates.
Vital Mental Medicine
In October 1915, when Shackleton finally gave the order to abandon ship and the men took to the ice, they were each allowed to take with them two pounds of personal possessions including their boots. One exception of course were Hurley’s negatives, but there was another - one that I think beautifully illustrates the spirit of the expedition. The ship’s meteorologist Leonard Hussey had left behind his beloved banjo, but Shackleton himself went back to retrieve it. In a recording from the 1950’s Hussey recalled his conversation with The Boss, as he was affectionately known.
“It’s rather heavy” I said dubiously. “Do you think we ought to take it?”
“Yes, certainly!” was his reply. “We must have that banjo if we lose all our food. It’s vital mental medicine!”
As I work on Grit, I turn to banjo music and old folk tunes to listen to along the way. Together with the pencils, scalpels, scrapers, and brushes it is a powerful tool - affecting focus, energy, and mood and helping to put me just that little bit closer into the minds of these incredible and courageous men.
References and Image Credits
1. Fleishman, G. Scientists Record Earth’s Lowest Temperature Ever. Here’s How Cold It Got https://fortune.com/2018/06/25/lowest-temperature-earth/ June 25, 2018
2. Shackleton, E. ed. King, P. (1991) South - The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, Pimlico
3. Riffenburgh, B. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition ©SPRI, University of Cambridge
4. Van Eyken, T. Vital Mental Medicine: Shackleton’s Banjo https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00wdgr5 BBC Radio 4 extra, December 7, 2010