Caleb Klaces writes:
Frank Hurley, official photographer of Shackleton’s 1914-16 Antarctic expedition, went to great lengths to get the photographs he wanted. After the rescue and return home of the expedition members, Hurley went back to try and follow the route Shackleton and two other men had taken on foot across South Georgia to get help for those stranded on Elephant Island, as the first time around Hurley had been one of those left behind.
A selection of Hurley’s black-and-white photographs were on show last month at the Royal Geographical Society in London. They included humbling shots of the frozen-solid Endurance vessel looking tiny and brittle, a black stick insect sticking out of the shades of white which fill the frame. One desperate image was of the men harnessed to a boat, dragging it across pure white ground, taken from a precarious vantage point; the companionship in a portrait of a man-sized dog leaping up to hug one of the crew also captures a sense of loneliness.
But to me there’s something curiously incomplete, and unaffecting, in the portrait of the landscape itself. This could be because in my imagination the Antarctic exists on a scale too large ever to capture – dooming the photographs in my mind to fail; it could be that these older photographs suffer because images of polar regions are so familiar to us now, and often trite.
I now wonder if capturing the landscape is the wrong way to think about it. In a video post while on a recent Cape Farewelltrip to the Arctic, the singer Jarvis Cocker said that “People have made a lot of great art over the centuries…but an iceberg basically pisses on it”. For Cocker, the landscape is a kind of artwork already, to which we can only respond, not capture. This might be truer to Frank Hurley’s experience, too, who never did make it across South Georgia to get those photographs.
Caleb Klaces is a poet,and founder and Editor-in-chief of www.likestarlings.com, a website which pairs up established and new poets to create new poetic conversations.