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.


The best journey in the world

The best journey in the world

Much of my Antarctic fascination is rooted in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World and in the stories of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.  I’ve branched out quite a bit, but my imagination about Antarctica has always seemed to return to this narrative and this place:  Cape Evans, where Terra Nova was based.  Going there …. I can’t begin to say how important it was for me.

When you are an NSF Antarctic artist, you generally rely on the good will of science teams to get out into the field.  They may let you accompany them on a trip, or they may donate some leftover helo hours to help you get to them.  It does have to be worked out well in advance, but as we discovered with our trip to Cape Royds, it might change.  I think and hope many of the scientists realize the potential outreach value of inviting an artist to see what they are up to.  But this trip was different; it was all ours.  We had 4-5 hours on the ground.  And we had the best company:  Katy, an experienced and generous Antarctic traveler and our support person throughout this entire adventure, to whom we owe so much I couldn’t begin to enumerate it all, and filmmaker Anthony Powell who was kind enough to take time away from Scott Base and a busy schedule to come with us to pose as Herbert Ponting (how perfect is that anyway–the new Antarctic filmmaker reenacting photographs of the first Antarctic filmmaker?).

Antony Powell’s website for Antarctica: A Year on Ice: http://frozensouth.weebly.com/

In the shoulder season Cape Evans can be reached by sea ice, and many McMurdrians visit via snowmobile.  But as the summer progresses the ice becomes unreliable, and one must go by helicopter.  During the short hop, I thought about how members of Terra Nova or later of the Ross Sea Party from the Aurora–the other half of Shackleton’s Endurance–made this journey on foot by sea ice.  Thirteen miles.  It could be hazardous.  When the ice got unreliable, there was no helicopter then, although for awhile on Terra Nova they rigged a telephone between Cape Evans and the hut at Hut Point.  The remnants of both ends are still in the huts. Going into shore to walk between the huts meant a perilous pretty much impossible climb through cliffs and the heavily crevassed Erebus glacier ice tongue.  Sometimes they risked the sea ice when it was not quite reliable; it could blow out very quickly, as it did in the harrowing story of the ponies trapped on floes in Cherry’s book, for instance.  After a second year of sledging to stock (futile) depots for Shackleton and losing a man to scurvy, Mackintosh and Hayward of the stranded Ross Sea party, still suffering the lingering effects of the deprivations of their labors, simply couldn’t take the blubbery squalor of Hut Point another day and decided to risk walking to Cape Evans even though a storm was approaching from Minna Bluff and the ice was not yet sure.  They were never seen again.

Scott learned from his mistakes.  Discovery was frozen in at the site of our present wharf (with no Polar Star to break her out) and the Hut Point hut was just all wrong for the Antarctic.  It was built pre-fab on an Australian model with a veranda running round it that, despite insulating it with felt, was designed to keep out the heat.  It certainly does that.  When we shot inside the hut a few days ago, my hands got colder than they have ever been on this whole trip.  We were inside and I did the stupid thing, got engrossed in what we were doing and forgot to care about my hands.  You go inside out of the wind, you take your gloves off to adjust all your gizmos.  I can’t imagine living in that hut.  I was in there for under and hour and was chilled to the bone even with Big Red on (and my gloves off).

He chose Cape Evans for his next expedition because it had a reasonable anchorage (though not in a gale, and lacking protection from the major movements of the sea ice, as the Aurora was to learn) and a low beach; it was located right next to an entry way to what they called “the barrier” and we now call the Ross Ice Shelf (they were not quite aware it was floating on the sea) that led to the Beardmore and the “gateway” Shackleton had discovered to the central plateau.  And he brought a much better hut, designed to keep heat in, and lined this time with a material woven from seaweed.  After restoration by the New Zealand Heritage Trust, it looks snug and fine, and it was both fascinating inside and a welcome respite from the biting winds of the cape.


We had a fine sunny evening–we went at night because of Anthony’s schedule but also because of the light; it would be worked around so that the sun shone on Erebus rather than was shielded by the volcano.  As we were landing I had a lump in my throaty the size of Tennessee.  There it all was–Erebus, the hut, the “ramp” leading to the water, the cross (for the Ross Sea party dead: Spencer-Smith, Mackenzie, and Hayward), and on the other side of the cape, the edge of the ice shelf.

We were greeted by a few Weddell seals lolling on the beach and several swooping skuas.  I remembered that Scott referred to the site as “the Skuary” for awhile before he renamed it for Teddy Evans, his second in command on Terra Nova.


Here is the hut’s history provided by the New Zealand Heritage Trust:


We made our portraits of Anthony outside first, posing him in the position of 2 separate images of Ponting.  I was having a fine old time and I hadn’t even entered the hut yet.  But eventually, we all did.  And there it all was:  the long dining table, Ponty’s darkroom, Scott’s walled-off officers’ nook, the kitchen with its crockery and food tins, the bunks with various personal items–stockings, magazines, a comb–all stuff belonging to these men about whom I had read so much.



I am standing next to Cherry’s bunk, in the “Tenements,” the lower left one.



Later tenants–perhaps from the Ross Sea party?–had glued collages of kitty cats and dogs to the bed boards in the tenements.  Too many textures and details to list here.  It seemed to me that Ponting’s photos had been employed in the restoration of the hut–in a way also re-enacting his photos, as we were doing.  The positions of the bodies in the huts we could not, however, directly re-enact.  Visitors used to touch all kinds of things.  Sara Wheeler writes about lying down in Scott;s bunk, for instance.  Some folks would even steal artifacts, but now the huts are strictly protected and one must touch nothing.  But being there is enough.  I didn’t need to lie down on Cherry’s bunk.  I had Ponting’s image of him peering out in my head. The presence of the former occupants is palpable–for me at least partially because the photographs haunt the emptiness.  But mostly the stories.

Back outside to take some landscapes, and we hiked over the ridge with the cross because Katy had come back from there and said there were a couple of Emperors over there, 5 minutes’ walk.  And so there were, posing in front of Erebus:  a gift, a miracle, an indelible image.  It was that kind of journey.