Yesterday afternoon we staged the most comic of our portraits, based on Ponting’s product-placement shot of a crew member perched on a crate labeled “Heinz Baked Beans” and doing a bite-and-smile with a spoon and a can of the same. When I was in Cambridge last year at the wonderful Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Ponting’s papers I turned up a long letter to Scott–never delivered, since it was written when Scott was already dead, unbeknownst to Ponting and the world–that contained a reference to photos like this that implied Ponting hadn’t been informed in advance of the expedition that he would be required to take such crassly commercial photos; he clearly felt they were beneath his dignity. So why would we re-enact such a photo?
For me, 3 reasons: 1) Antarctic exploration and science ain’t cheap, and someone has to foot the bill, even and perhaps especially for items as banal as beans to feed the troops, be it Heinz or the American taxpayer, and there are all kinds of ways those pressures surfaced for Scott et al and for McMurdo now. See also Cherry-Garrard on shopkeeping. We had a long and twisting conversation about what our contemporary portrait should have emblazoned on the crate. NSF? NO–we didn’t want anyone to make the equation Beans = NSF. What then? We liked the challenge of figuring it out.
2) A wonderful guy called Max, a contract worker in Supply, turned up out of the blue wanting to get involved with our project in any way, and he reminded us of the young guy in the Ponting photo–both project so much likability through the lens. Max was perfect, disarming and forthcoming. We loved his enthusiasm. He helped us set up another portrait too. Max is setting out from McMurdo in April to travel the world–an adventurous young person, like others we have met here. I wish him all the best. The world should be his oyster.
3) It drew us into an area of McMurdo a bit off the beaten path of central town, uphill into the outdoor warehouse storage racks and rows known as “Mustache” since to keep track of the inventory the rows are organized according to mustache types: Handlebar, Imperial, etc. There are witty signs for these. It was Vince’s idea to shoot Max’s portrait up there.
Instead of just one crate of beans, Max perched on a 3-4 tier multicolored stack at the end of one mustache row. Stretched our behind and to either side of him were rows upon rows of crates of various shapes, sizes, and hues. In the background of the shot, since Mustache is up on a hill, you can see McMurdo Sound, and it just so happened that the British ship Protector was in the sound and a helicopter was ferrying freight around the sound to the heliport below us. So there was an opportunity to open up the image beyond the full shot of Max and show how the cargo and thus the materiality of Antarctic exploration had expanded. It now takes a lot more beans. We replaced the beans with a sandwich. We brought 2 so we could do multiple takes.
We also approached the shot differently than most of our portraits. We traded slow motion for stop action, opening the shot on Max taking his first bite of sandwich similarly framed as in Ponting’s image, then using the continuous burst mode to travel from him, handheld and purposefully herky-jerky, around the rows of cargo, returning full circle to Max finishing the sandwich. We were so happy when we thought it up. The reality was that it was really hard to do because it was a very cold day and the wind whips through the Mustaches dreadfully, and there were gusts of up to 40 mph that day with wind chills down to -17 F. And to hold the continuous burst, you have to keep pressure on the shutter button which pretty much requires either a thin glove or no glove or a fingerless one (I experiment with a lot of gloves, and have never been satisfied with any of them). Running along the racks increased the wind chill, and the wind decided to grab my hood at one corner and pull it off my head, reducing my headgear down to one hat, and my gaiter also slipped down so my face was exposed. I only did one run of this shot. Vince did 2, and I think he had even less luck with clothes. When I got to the end of the shot my face was so frozen I couldn’t speak, and my hand was so cramped around the camera I had to pry the exposed hand off with the other. And Max was out of sandwich but Vince said, “Just stuff the crumbs in your mouth, no one will notice” (the wind was also whipping sandwiches apart) and poor Max was stuffing sandwich shreds in his mouth and turning blue up there on top of the crates–we at least were able to run around to try to stay warm. Every time I tell this story now when I get to Vince’s line about the crumbs I crack up and can’t finish telling it.
I still don’t know what this shot looks like, because we can’t immediately take cameras out of bags when we get back inside lest we get condensation, so we left everything in our lab in its insulated bags and went our separate ways. Somewhere up there in Mustache land I lost one of the most successful of my inadequate gloves (a dress glove, of all things, from Madova in Florence), and I was otherwise fond of these gloves so I bit the bullet and hiked back up the hill to look for it. By then it was blowing so hard and I was having so little success that I decided to use the old method of having the remaining glove do some work. I dropped it on the ground and instructed it to “Go find your brother.” Whereupon it sailed off down toward the sound and it took me a vigorous chase to get it back. I think it was trying to tell me to give up, its brother was long gone.
Time to go look at the shot. Wish me luck. We are all out of sandwich and down to one glove. Each reenactment presents its own set of challenges. I’m quite sure Ponting had wind chill and glove issues too.
This one was a lot of fun.