Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935) was one of the most renowned photographers of his day when he was recruited as “camera-artist” to the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, 1910-1913.
Born into a wealthy Victorian family from Salisbury, Ponting worked briefly as a banker before moving to California and turning his attention to photography.
During the first years of the 20th century, a number of assignments took him to the Far East. In 1904-1905, he photographed the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, before continuing his travels in Japan, Burma, Java, China and India, selling his work to London’s foremost magazines.
As a member of the Terra Nova Expedition, Ponting helped set up the Antarctic winter hut at Cape Evans, and was entitled to a tiny photographic darkroom in which he also slept. Working with glass plate negatives and a comprehensive range of cameras and lenses, he photographed all aspects of the expedition. As a middle-aged man, however, he was not able to take part on the inland trek to the South Pole and, after 14 months at Cape Evans, he boarded Terra Nova in February 1912 to return home. Back in London, he set to work shaping a visual narrative of the expedition for Captain Scott to show during his lectures upon his return. This was not to be, however, as Scott and four of his men perished on their return from the Pole.
The tragic outcome of the Terra Nova expedition would affect Ponting’s later life and career. Although millions throughout the world would come to see the beauty and majesty of the earth’s last known continent through his images and films, a prior contractual agreement with Scott did not guarantee him any exclusivity in exploiting the photographs, and his own lectures earned him very little.
Ponting virtually gave up photography, turning to business instead, but he was no businessman. When he died in 1935, the net value of his estate was insufficient to pay off his debts.