When photographer Frank Hurley signed on to document British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole in 1914, he knew he’d be capturing some of the earliest images of Antarctica’s bleak and beautiful unexplored terrain. But after Shackleton’s ship, HMS Endurance, was trapped by pack ice—and slowly succumbed to its crushing pressure—the expedition's fate, and that of its crew, looked bleak. Hundreds of miles from inhabited territory, and far from any well-traveled shipping lanes, they wouldn’t be rescued for more than a year and a half.
Hurley’s photographs, captured on heavy glass negatives, were originally intended as documents of the expedition’s pioneering scientific research. But after the Endurance met its unlucky fate, they recorded something even more extraordinary: the epic survival of 28 men amid extreme physical hardship and mental stress. He captured not only the desolate polar landscape, but the grit and determination of the stranded crew members trying to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures, stave off starvation and despair, and pass time on an ice floe as they witnessed the slow-motion destruction of the Endurance, their only refuge.
As the photographs show, Hurley had no trouble lugging his heavy camera gear up the sides of mountains or high up into the ship’s rigging, to get panoramic views. He even set up a darkroom in the ship—no small feat. As he wrote in his journal: “Darkroom work rendered extremely difficult by the low temperatures it being minus 13 [degrees] C outside. The temperature in the darkroom, near the engine room, is just above freezing. Washing [plates] is troublesome, as the tank must be kept warm or the plates become [enclosed] in an ice block... Development is a source of annoyance to the fingers, which split and crack around the nails in a painful manner.”
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When the Endurance was finally swallowed up by the ice after 10 months, taking Hurley’s collection of glass plate negatives with it, the photographer, determined to preserve his work, dove into the freezing water to retrieve the negatives and film. However, Shackleton had different priorities and deemed the negatives too heavy to carry along in their journey. On the spot, Hurley had to make a quick decision about which photographs were most important to keep. He edited down more than 600 photographs to a little more than 100 glass plates, smashing the rejects right on the ice.
After the ship sank, the crew dragged their lifeboats a few miles and then camped on the ice for four more months, until it began to crack. They then endured a grueling voyage over rough seas to Elephant Island, where the men waited four more months as Shackleton and five others ventured for help. Hurley, who had to abandon most of his equipment after the Endurance was lost to the ice, carried a Kodak Vest Pocket camera and three rolls of film for the remainder of the ordeal. He shot about three dozen more images on Elephant Island, as well as of the eventual rescue. Every man survived.