Remember how — before the dawn of the digital age — undeveloped rolls of film could get lost in the junk drawer for years on end, so when you finally got around to developing the photos they seemed to come from some distant time and place?
Conservators from the Antarctic Heritage Trust can top that with their discovery of cellulose nitrate negatives that are about 100 years old in a small box frozen in a block of ice.
The camp where the negatives were found was established by the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13) of Robert Falcon Scott, which succeeded in reaching the South Pole only to die of starvation and exposure on the return trek. The restored negatives, however, document the Ross Sea party of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
In January 1915, Shackleton’s lead scientist, a photographer and eight other team members were put ashore by the exploration ship Aurora at McMurdo Sound and tasked with establishing a string of supply depots. Shackleton and his team would sail Endurance to begin their explorations near the Weddell Sea, working their way to the Pole and then back to Aurora via the Ross Sea supply stations — an 1,800-mile trek.
After a series of misfortunes, Aurora was blown off her moorings and was unable to return, leaving the Ross Sea party stranded. Despite the death of their pack dogs, extreme hardship, illness and other challenges, they accomplished their mission after two winters.
Meanwhile, Endurance was having its own problems. The ship was caught in pack ice and unable to land, and Shackleton’s crew fought their legendary and triumphant battle for survival. However, the supply camps that had been so heroically established were never used.
Aurora returned in January 1917 to retrieve the Ross Sea party; by then three men had died, including Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, who is believed to be the photographer.