David M. Wilson, a polar historian, was having drinks in a London art salesroom several years ago when an unknown collector approached him. “He said, ‘You’ll never guess what I have in my collection,’ ” Mr. Wilson recalled.
The collector, Richard Kossow, told him that in 2001 he had purchased a portfolio of Antarctic photographs from the early 20th century. But these weren’t just any Antarctic photographs: They were from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition of 1910-13, in which Scott and several other men, including Mr. Wilson’s great-uncle, Edward Wilson, died while returning from the pole.
And these weren’t just any photographs from that expedition, Mr. Kossow told him: They were taken by Scott himself. “I just about choked on my gin and tonic,” Mr. Wilson said.
The whereabouts of most of the Scott photographs, taken around the expedition’s winter quarters on Ross Island and while on the journey toward the pole, had long been a mystery. Only a dozen or two had ever been published, and many of those had been incorrectly attributed to others. The unpublished photos had apparently languished in a commercial archive for decades.
Now as the centenary of Scott’s death, in March 1912, approaches, Mr. Wilson has published all the images in “The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott,” along with detailed descriptions of where and when they were taken, as best Mr. Wilson could determine. Scott hired a well-known professional travel photographer, Herbert Ponting, for the expedition, and his photographs are some of the most celebrated in the history of polar exploration. But Ponting was never expected to make the arduous journey with sledges, ponies and dogs from Ross Island to the pole. Instead he gave Scott and others a crash course in photography, teaching them how to use the bulky cameras, lenses and filters and make proper exposures in the extreme conditions.
It was a steep learning curve, but Scott turned out to be one of Ponting’s better students. Many of his photographs are from those training sessions. Sophie Gordon, who as senior curator of photographs at the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle is mounting an exhibition of the work of Ponting and a later Antarctic photographer, Frank Hurley, said Scott had learned well from his teacher. “He really had quite an artistic eye,” she said. “His best photographs look like Pontings.”