Photo Essays

100-Year-Old Photographs of Doomed Expedition Discovered in Antarctica

by Alicia Eler on December 30, 2013

Photographs from a 1915 Antarctica expedition were recently discovered. Images available on the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust website.

Photographs from a 1914–17 Antarctic expedition were recently discovered. (all images via New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust)

Some photographs are best left to be discovered decades after they were first exposed. Much like the work of Vivian Maier — whose images were found years after she said her goodbyes — a recent finding of 22 undeveloped cellulose nitrate negatives from a 1914–17 Antarctic expedition reignites our wonder at the opportunity to glimpse a past thought lost.

This set of photographs captures Ross Island, McMurdo Sound, and Alexander Stevens, the expedition’s chief scientist. Ten men from that expedition, which was part of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Ross Sea party, were stranded on the icy continent for nearly two years after their ship, the SY Aurora, broke loose during a gale and drifted out to sea. Three men would die, including the party’s photographer Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith.

These are images from an era that is fondly referred to as that of “heroic exploration.” There was only minimal damage to the edges of the photographs, and conservators were thus able to perform a nearly complete restoration (the partially mould-covered photographs had been found blocked together). New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust executive director Nigel Watson said in a press release

“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There’s a paucity of images from that expedition.”

The explorers’ choice of cellulose nitrate film was at least partially to thank for the image preservation. According to Kodak, the nitrate base was used in motion picture film, and eliminated from production around 1951–52. Known to be a relatively unstable base, such film easily becomes a fire hazard if it is not allowed proper ventilation. It breaks down in higher temperatures, and when it deteriorates it emits toxic gases that are oxidizing agents. The Kodak site goes on to note that under the right conditions, cellulose nitrate film can last for “decades or generations.” Nitrate film that is decomposing will be sticky or “badly buckled.”

Luckily, the film that these explorers left behind in Antarctica didn’t contend with anything that would cause it to combust: temperatures at McMurdo Station, near where the images were found, range from –28 degrees Celsius (–18 degrees Fahrenheit) to –3 degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit).

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AHT Iceberg and land Ross Island Antarctica

The negatives were found frozen in ice

h/t The Verge

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  • punktoad

    When do snapshots become art?

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      That’s an interesting question, though these were created by a photographer on the expedition.

      • punktoad

        I’m thinking the photographer was documenting the expedition and taking snapshots. Then the passage of time and their discovery turned the photos into art.

        • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

          In that sense, they’re quite similar to Vivian Maier’s work.

  • Jørgen Fog

    Snapshot aestetics have been prominent since the 60′ies and 70′ies through the lens of practitioners as William Eggleston Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. In the 90′ies a photographer as Wolfgag Tillmans have been notable for his documentation of his surroundings, “operating on the basis of the fundamentale equality of all motifs and supports”.

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