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  • Sarah Bouckoms

Shackleton's Argonauts

Frank Hurley is arguably one of the best Antarctic Photographers of all time. I’ve known and loved his photos since the start of my infatuation with the continent, but I only recently picked up his book. Turns out he was also a wordsmith.

His short account of life with Sir Ernest Shackleton aboard the Endurance showed that there was much more going on than the photos he snapped. The pages have snippets of diary entries, detailed accounts of conversations, and poems that he wrote. He manages to paint a story of the small daily tasks while also giving a concise overall story. I loved hearing the personal accounts of how Shackleton was a great leadership was displayed as in this excerpt:

“My hands became badly frozen through the continual wearing of wet mitts. The leader, noticing my endeavours to restore circulation, took off his warm gloves and handed them to me. “Take these until your hands are right,” he said. Since he was suffering himself, I refused. But he was determined that I should have them. “All right,” he replied, “if you don’t take them I’ll throw them into the sea.” It was a brave action-characteristic of the man.”

Shackleton’s positive attitude no doubt got them through many a dready day. This attitude was contagious to his second in command, Frank Wild has he rose every day to say that Shackleton was coming for them as they were stranded on Elephant Island. More amusing were the accounts of food. Some of it delightful, but others made me appreciate a warm meal hearing the hoosh and pemmican they added to a dish of penguin. The men also loved tabacoo. Hurley painted a scene of desperation and joy as they had finished their supply:

"The last pipeful of genuine leaf was smoked by Wild on August 23rd; but long before this we had been stifled with fumes of penguin feathers, rope-yarn, dried meat and other pipe-fuel, with which the confirmed smokers had endearoured to satisfy their cravings. One evening I was awakened from a doze by the familiar smell of an Australian bush-fire. Rubbing my eyes, I beheld McLeod, one of the sailors, contentedly puffing out volumes of heavy smoke. The day before he had borrowed all the pipes and boiled them in a tin to extract the nicotine juices. McLeod then discovered that, by steeping the grass lining of his padded footwear in the concoction, and drying it before the fire, an aromatic “tabacco” of exceptional flavor resulted. The unusual “perfume” awakened everyone and in a twinkling one and all were busy slitting open their boots to remove the padding. A few moments later clouds of this new incense were ascending into the upper regions of our hut, to fall again in an ever-thickening volume. That we had worn those padded boots continuously for seven long months was an unconsidered trifle.”

Firsthand accounts like this one are important to read. They really give you the perspective of what it was like to travel on that epic journey. I was amazed how Hurley could be so multifaceted as an author and a photographer. It made me think of how I am documenting my own trip. I see so many people taking photos, but what are they taking photos of? Can you get lost behind a camera lens and forget to step away and soak the moment up for yourself? Surely you can. And when you return from a trip, what kinds of photos do you stop and pause at? This is assuming you’ve taken them of the media card. I can only imagine the pain Hurley must have gone through to smash his photographic plates to reduce the weight. What would he think of our 64 GB camera cards and portable cell phones? But does being able to take more, mean better? At the end of the book, there are a selection of a dozen or so black and white pictures he took on the expedition. What makes them remarkable is the story they tell; the context of the men, the remoteness, the pain, the hope. There are few that are purely landscape. Everyone seems infatuated with the grandeur of the ice but to answer my own question, the photos that I pause at when reviewing them after a trip, are the ones with people. Even the most awkward pose where my hair is messy, I was still capturing a moment. When people are taking action whether chopping an ice flow or carving steps, making a scientific observation, those photos are the ones that I linger at.

I am no photographer but I appreciate the skills Hurley brings forth. He inspires me to not only linger longer behind a lens to craft a photograph rather than a snapshot, but to try other media. Writing, here in this blog or for my private journal. I have even got some art supplies on board to try to capture the moment. It is important to document, for yourself and to be able to share with others. Surely no photo can ever contain the grandeur of a place called Antarctica, nor capture the smell of penguin guano. But you can then relate the events to others in your life. You can remember a little bit more. You can be a story teller.

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