Polar Expedition Photography

Elizabeth I. Watkins (University of Leeds), ‘Polar Expedition Photography: Historical Specificity and Intermediality of Colour in Public Exhibition’


The history of photographic technologies and early 1900s Antarctic exploration, a region previously envisioned as an ‘atemporal white space’ (Yusoff), are inextricably linked. Expedition photography traces the formation of a ‘historical field of vision configured through the limitations and possibilities of this medium’ (Yusoff 2010, p.55). A study of photography in scientific exploration and the framing and interpretation of Antarctic landscapes for public exhibition, discerns the specificities of film and photography as integral to the construction of historical place. This paper focusses on the work of H G Ponting and E A Wilson on Scott’s fated 1910-13 expedition to the South Pole to consider the cultural effects of light as condition (daylight, flash light) and subject of representation (sunsets, sunrise) in expedition and Antarctic voyage photography. Photographic sensitivity to light and the potential registration of a colour image were a common concern for turn of century photography. Although, expedition narratives detail the relationship of body and environment, the frailty of the subject is not entirely of physiological impact of the cold, but also of human cognition, a questioning of perception – mirages, ice blinks, Aurora Australis – visual verification of which photography is slow to capture. For example, Autochromes, an early colour process, produced mottled images marked by low contrast and soft focus, leaving records of colour (of light refracted by ice, paraselena, sunrise, sunset) to relie on a combination of media (photographs, sketches, written notes) in public exhibition.  An analysis of the intermediality of colour and the historical specificity of photographic technologies discerns representation of the Antarctic landscape as a shifting cultural configuration of materials and images that alters the divide between the conceptualisation of landscape as naturalistic, ‘a neutral backdrop’ and ‘a culturalistic understanding that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space’ (Ingold, 1993, p.152). The photographic and its technical limits – the temporality of landscape and colour in scientific documentation and the configuration of the Antarctic for public exhibition – are integral to the slippages that sustain a fascination in a historical narrative and its representation.


Elizabeth Watkins’ research focuses on the history, technologies and aesthetics of colour in cinema; archival research and the concept of intermediality; cultural and historical analyses of early 1900s polar expedition film, photography and its exhibition; gesture, performance and historical specificity in feminist theory and the films of Andrea Arnold. She is co-editor of Color and the Moving Image (Routledge, 2013), Gesture and Film: Signaling New Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2017) and has published essays in Screen, Paragraph, Journal of British Cinema and Television, NECSUS, and the Journal for Cultural Research. Her book, The Residual Image, which explores the significance of colour for film theories of subjectivity, sexuality and perception, will be published with Routledge in 2018.

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