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5.0 out of 5 stars The Untold Story of a Scientific Endeavor, November 25, 2011
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This review is from: The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Hardcover)
At first glance, the book appears as a catalog of Captain Scott's long lost photographs detailing his scientific mission in Antarctica, and the arduous trek to the south pole from which he and his small band of men never returned. But the book is much more than that. It is written by David Wilson, the great nephew of of Edward Wilson, who was Scott's close friend, and who perished with him on the return trip from the pole. David's great uncle Edward was, first and foremost, a scientist and a gifted artist whose sketches of the Antarctic terrain were, in the early 20th century, the principle means by which explorers and scientists visually recorded for others what they themselves had seen. But a new technological age was dawning, and photography was one of the advances that was being slowly adopted by hobbyists, first, then by scientists who used cameras in their field work. David Wilson therefore has a very special point of view which enables him not merely to produce a book of pictures and captions, but also a tell us a story, and give us a faithful record, of the polar mission.

Scott, Wilson and Evans are three of the most well remembered explorers who sought to learn about Antarctica and to plant the British flag at the pole. But David Wilson's narrative introduces us to Herbert Ponting, without whom there would scarcely be any photographic evidence of the expedition whatsoever. Ponting was among the eminent photographers of his day. And Scott, as an innovator, quickly understood how he might contribute to the scientific undertaking of the expedition. Herbert Ponting was persuaded by Scott -without too much effort- to join the party. This gives us a glimpse of Scott's character and nature. He understood the scientific purpose of his trip, and he appreciated the technical assets and technical talent which would advance and support their mission. If Ponting was eager to become part of the quest, then Scott was just as enthusiastic about leaning how to take photographs. In that day, it was not mere "point and shoot." Equipment was awkward, large, and heavy; hardly suited to a trek where the weight of equipment and goods must be carefully calculated to be borne over a barren terrain which only sapped the strength of man and beast. Likewise, technique was essential; the equipment was no more forgiving of error then was the environment in which it was deployed.

David Wilson tells us that composition was important to making a good photographic record; objects in the foreground must serve to mirror the subject matter in the distance, and guide the viewer's eye into the over-all scene, as if you were there. And so it is with Wilson's story. The photographs and narrative are a kind of metaphor for the larger purposes at hand; the scientific investigations, the trip to the pole. And all of this falls within the context of human endeavor, struggle and heroism; the character of people, personalities; the almost unbelievable challenges of a climate which is alternately sub-zero, then unexpectedly balmy, and deadly in either case. The story, and the way the story is written, is compelling and it is balanced. You come away knowing what happened and how it happened and why it happened. And, yes, you see, literally see, the evidence.

And let this work put an end to the arguments about whether Scott was primarily interested in a "race" to the pole for the honor of his country, or was most dedicated to a mission of discovery and scientific inquiry. The sheer bulk of equipment and talents of the people argue strongly that a spirit of inquiry and a drive to broaden knowledge was the essential purpose. But perhaps more convincing are the many diary entries and personal notes which more clearly than anything else reveal motive and inspiration.

You may place this book on your coffee-table, but don't start to read it until you are prepared to settle in for hours at a time. I suggest you keep a sweater nearby, because, no matter what the temperature, you'll feel the cold. In the end, the book is a brilliant exposition which reveals the historical context of the undertaking, the broad strokes of the quest, and the details of the efforts to record the endeavor. Wilson's work is a welcome addition on the shelves of historians, scientists, serious photographers, and those who simply want to know, "what happened?"

Highly recommended.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 14, 2011 6:51:11 PM PST
R. Brown says:
Scott was a bungler who nearly killed himself with Wilson and Shackleton during the Discovery Expedition, and then succeeded in committing suicide and taking four men with him in 1912.
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