Brain Pickings

A Rare Look at Antarctica, 1911-1914

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In the summer of 1911, a group of Australian scientists, adventurers and explorers set out to make history by undertaking the first Australian expedition to Antarctica, a three-year journey into the frozen unknown. Under the leadership of Dr. Douglas Mawson, they set sail for Macquarie Island and the virgin parts of Antarctica. Today, we look at what they encountered and recorded on the way not merely as a rare and fascinating glimpse of long-gone world frozen in time, but also as the source of important information that made a major contribution to how contemporary science understands the region and laid the groundwork for claims that in 1936 were formalized as the Australian Antarctic Territory.

These images come from James Francis (Frank) Hurley, the official photographer to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, and other members of the expedition who compensated for their lack of photographic acumen with sheer enthusiasm and visceral curiosity about the novel landscape that unfolded before their eyes.

Huskies pulling sledge / Format: Silver gelatin photoprint

Harold Hamilton with skeleton of sea-elephant / Format: Silver gelatin photonegative

Blizzard, the pup in Antarctica / Photograph by Frank Hurley /Format: Silver gelatin negative

Ice cased Adelie penguins after a blizzard at Cape Denison / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Glass negative

Hamilton hand-netting for macro-plankton from Aurora / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Silver gelatin photoprint

Wreck of the 'Gratitude', Macquarie Island, 1911 / Format: Silver gelatin photoprint

King penguins, Antarctica, 1911-1914 / Photograph by Frank Hurley

Ice mask, C.T. Madigan, between 1911-1914 / Photograph by Frank Hurley / Format: Glass negative

Wild & Watson in sleeping bag tent on sledge journey

Shags defending nest, Macquarie Island / Photograph by Harold Hamilton

Arthur Sawyer with sea elephant pup / Format: Silver gelatin photonegative

Perhaps most fascinating — in a bittersweet kind of way — is the duality of human progress found in the stark contrast between these images and contemporary iterations of them: At once a living hallmark of the remarkable advances in photographic technology and a gripping reminder of how quickly we’re losing this precious ecosystem.

For a closer look at this fascinating and tender world, you won’t go wrong with Sara Wheeler’s classic, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica.

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