'The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott': 100 Years of Polar Mystery

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In April, these rare photos of the first Australian expedition to Antarctica circa 1911-1914 quickly became one of the most read and circulated photography articles on Brain Pickings all year. This glimpse of early polar exploration, however, was preceded by another, the legend of which endured for over a century. In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and a small crew of men embarked on the infamous Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, only to arrive there on January 17, 1912, and discover that a Norwegian expedition had beaten them to the feat. To add tragedy to letdown, the crew never made it home -- they perished on the way back in the grip of starvation, exhaustion, and extreme cold. Though it was known that Captain Scott documented the ill-fated expedition in a wealth of photos, the location of most of them remained a mystery for nearly a century.

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition brings these brave men's story to light, and does so with an incredible story of its own. Several years ago, as polar historian David M. Wilson was having a drink at a London salon, he was approached by an art collector by the name of Richard Kossow, who claimed that in 2001 he had purchased a portfolio of Antarctic photographs from the early 1900s. Wilson was already intrigued, but when Kossow informed him that the photos were from Robert Falcon Scott's 1910-13 expedition, whose ill-fated crew featured Wilson's great-uncle, Edward Wilson, and they were taken by Scott himself, Wilson nearly choked on his gin and tonic. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Self-portrait by professional travel photographer Herbert Ponting, hired by Scott, as he photographs the Terra Nova in pack ice, December, 1910.

The hut at Cape Evans, captured by Scott in a photograph used chiefly to practice using lenses, filters, and other photo equipment, yet an invaluable record of the expedition, October, 1910.

Crew members from the Terra Nova expedition, 1910.

The ponies rest in the sun, the line of sledges leading the eye out into the great beyond, November 19, 1911.

The ponies straggle in the icy wilderness on a trek from which many of the men and none of the ponies would return.

Scott's lens looks in the direction of the crew's journey out from the Lower Glacier Depot, December 11, 1911

On December 20, 1911, Scott captured these striking geological features of the mountains around Mount Wild.

Equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking, The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott is as much a rugged lesson in early extreme photography as it is a priceless lens on the history of polar exploration, at last free of the fog of mystery.

Images: Robert Falcon Scott (courtesy of Little, Brown and Company).

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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