Yesterday we shot another video portrait–one of possibly ten, I have lost count– for what we anticipate to be an “office mosaic.” These are based on some of Ponting’s photos made during his winter over of men in the hut doing indoor winter things: Cherry at his typewriter working on The Polar Times; Wilson making watercolor versions of his pencil sketches made in the field (watercoloring not an option in the field; the paints would freeze); Teddy Evans working over what looks like a map; the famous shot of Scott at his desk. These are all “desk work,” and we’ve kept them separate from the other Ponting winter interiors of household tasks like mending sleeping bags or cooking. There is a lot of contemporary desk work at McMurdo due to the complexity of running a whole town, two airstrips, a helo port, a shipping port, a cutting edge research lab supporting scientists of many stripes and an artist or two, and many field camps both semi-permanent and temporary–all of this in as remote a location as it gets–and due to all the various contractors and sub-contractors employed in doing all of the above. There is a flow chart of all of the administrative layers and it’s less a chart than a tangle. Even if one masters all the acronyms (and I have not) one could get lost in the forest of who does what. And they come and go–administration from afar, with periodic visits–or not–from administrators. Every department has its own administrative tasks as well–for example fuels, which we also visited yesterday, though administrators of these are more like Scott, combining outdoor work and accounting and planning for it back at one’s desk. There are as well visits from linked agencies like NASA and NOAA who have major ongoing projects here. So the few portraits of Scott or Evans doing desk work have grown into a mosaic of video portraits that is only a synecdoche of the administrative work going on every moment to run McMurdo.
I have to admit these are not my favorite images to shoot. Many of the office spaces at McMurdo are tight and a little…boring. I mean, outside is far more interesting. Often the window, if there is one, is useful as a light source but if we expose for the view we would lose the subject. Shooting at 120 fps has meant we lose some of the range available with the full sensor of the camera. So the challenge has been to find the shot and make it work technically as well as interesting as a video portrait. And what is the movement in the shot? Typing? Dull. But we’ve found some ways to meet the challenges, sometimes better than others. Hopefully the force of all of the office portraits in a mosaic will create one larger image that speaks well.
Back to the portrait yesterday. It was of Bev, the young and very smart and personable woman who runs Crary lab. We first met her when she issued us our keys and showed us our space in Crary, then took us (along with interested visitors) on a tour of Crary, a regular Sunday event. Like so many others we have met, Bev has worked her way through many positions at McMurdo, but she first came here as a grantee working on her Masters degree and studying sediments for the fossil record. She returned and has worked her way up to her current position.
We posed her in a position echoing Ponting’s portrait of Wilson watercoloring. There are some large display cases in the first long corridor entering Crary from the main door, and the artifacts in these cases were the basis of the start of the Crary tour Bev gave us. I liked how animated she was talking about them, and how she used the artifacts as the agents of stories. Lava bombs from Erebus; preserved specimens of a sea spider showing polar gigantism; various gizmos used by scientists in eras past; a full facsimile edition of the Polar Times (how I ache to get that out of the case and look at it); a stuffed Emperor penguin and chick; a sculptor’s interpretation of a toothfish (and boy does that have a story: see http://priceonomics.com/the-invention-of-the-chilean-sea-bass/ and http://ecowatch.com/2016/02/11/sea-shepherd-illegal-fishing/ and please do not order anything called “Chilean Sea Bass”ever ever ever because you are likely eating Patagonian toothfish which is threatened by irresponsible and even illegal fishing). But the artifact that initially drew my eye and hooks it every time I walk by it is a copy of Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks. I have a reprint back home but this looks to be an earlier edition. In the case it is propped open to a page of his Emperor penguin illustrations. Here is a short video clip from the Natural History Museum, narrated by David Wilson’s nephew, explaining Wilson’s watercolors and their value to scientists:
It includes the Ponting image we were using for Bev’s portrait. We asked her to take Wilson’s book out of the case and look at it for her portrait, substituting the book for the watercolor over which Wilson is bent in the Pointing portrait. It’s my favorite thus far of the office portraits because it so directly connects Wilson to Bev, and therefore Wilson’s work as a naturalist and biologist to Crary. In her audio interview, Bev also talked about her favorite object displayed in the Crary cases, the glossopteris fossil, and how a fossil like this was among the relics found in the tent where Scott, Wilson, and Bowers died. This was hard evidence–the first of its kind–connecting the fossil record of Antarctica with the supercontinent Gondwana.
This got me thinking again about the work of the heroic age explorers and about how research in general can be very pointed, but can also be full of unexpected surprises. Sometimes it feels like projects people describe are tantamount to looking for the lost contact lens under the streetlight. But even in doing so, maybe you find something completely unrelated under that streetlight. Doubtless there are a lot of dead ends in research–otherwise, it’s not really honest. Getting folks to realize the effort and patience real discoveries take to make seems increasingly difficult in times that are increasingly dictated by what Cherry-Garrard called “shopkeeper” thinking. For me Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers’ “worst journey in the world” to fetch penguin egg specimens that proved to be a dead end is a parable of that effect. Accommodating research means accommodating dead ends, failures, contingencies and surprises. One has to look beyond the immediate to understand the value–not a cash value–in these. No matter how many administrators parse expense sheets at their desks, there are some things that just can’t be accounted for. And for me, not just the penguin eggs, but the “incidental” beauty of Wilson’s paintings is is a related boon beyond the utmost balance sheet.
Here is another video from the Natural History Museum in which a curator shows us the eggs and narrates the story.