The Ice Man cometh

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THE long-distance gaze, the ice-rimmed-beard ... For well over a century now, photography has established the popular image of the polar explorer, the man – and increasingly woman – who pits themselves against mercilessly hostile elements at the ends of the earth.

From Scott and Shackleton to modern heroes such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the image has become almost hackneyed, as the expectations of the public – and of polar adventurers themselves, anxious to drum up public interest and support for their next expedition – demand the indomitable but frozen physiognomy.

"It has become both a staple and something of a cliche," writes Dr Huw Lewis-Jones who, as curator of art at Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), has studied more than his fair share of weatherbeaten features, particularly while compiling Face to Face: Polar Portraits.

The book interleaves 50 arresting historic studies from the Institute's archives with 50 contemporary portraits commissioned from Martin Hartley, a seasoned documenter of life at the two poles and other inhospitable environments.

The book's earliest "polar portrait" is of Sir John Franklin on board the Erebus in 1845, about to depart on his ill-fated expedition to find a North-west Passage, replete with epaulettes, medals and Nelson-style cocked hat. However, it was during the "heroic age" of polar exploration, straddling the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, that photography, says Lewis-Jones, defined polar exploration in the popular imagination. "It shaped the public image of what Antarctica was, what exploration was, what it meant to be an explorer," he says.

The SPRI's vast and unique archive covers the history of exploration at both poles, and Lewis-Jones is currently engaged in digitising some 20,000 of its photographs online in the neatly titled Freeze Frame project. Those selected for the book include a study of the man after whom the institute is named, and whose diaries it holds, Robert Falcon Scott, caught in thoughtful pose.

The book opens, however, with Henry "Birdie" Bowers's famous shot of Scott and his ill-fated party at the South Pole in 1912, having reached it only to discover they had been beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (a brooding study of whom appears elsewhere in the book).

As Ranulph Fiennes – whose own, bloodied countenance is among Hartley's recent studies – writes in his foreword, the photograph, found later along with their bodies, speaks volumes, recording both their achievement and their bitter, exhausted disappointment: "The men look absolutely broken; a photograph on top of anything else seems like a punishment."

There is also Frank Hurley's portrait of the redoubtable Tom Crean, a Kerry-born stalwart of both Scott and Shackleton's expeditions, and Sir Ernest Shackleton himself – "the Boss", as he was known, relaxed-looking, caught on deck munching a sandwich. Hurley's photographs – and pioneering 35mm film work – helped Shackleton become, as Lewis-Jones records, "a master of the illustrated lecture".

But the pioneering giant of polar photography was the Californian George Herbert Ponting, the official photographer on Scott's last expedition whose self-portait appears here, looking faintly Monty-Pythonesque with his bristling moustache, snow goggles and floppy hat. The reality was serious stuff, however: "Water froze in Ponting's tanks, flesh stuck to frozen metal and outdoor photography meant a constant risk of frostbite."

Ponting's determination to capture expedition members, says Lewis-Jones, resulted in them coining a new verb, "to 'pont' – to pose until nearly frozen". While Shackleton's illustrated lectures became a sensation, says Lewis-Jones, the unfortunate Scott wasn't about to give his.

"It was men like Ponting and his good mate Cecil Meares (another photography enthusiast, whose keen gaze stares from the book's cover] who kept the images alive after Scott's death. With Ponting it wasn't just his photographs. More than anyone else, he devoted the best part of his life to lecturing about the expedition." The collection includes a portrait of Lady Kathleen Scott, taken shortly before her husband left for Antarctica and which he pinned up in his hut at Cape Evans. Then there's Josephine Peary, the venturesome wife of the American polar explorer Robert Peary, in an 1891 studio shot of her clad in the Inuit-style furs she wore when accompanying her husband.

More recently, a dressing-gowned Sir Vivian Fuchs gives a manic grin as he anticipates his first bath for more than three months, having completed his 2,000-mile crossing of Antarctica in 1958.

Selecting these images from the vast archive was a taxing process – although all things are relative: "I'm just a historian," says Lewis-Jones.

"I don't know the struggle of crossing the Arctic Ocean. So my struggle in trying to select these pictures was not huge in these terms, of course, but it was a real challenge. Everyone has their favourites, and obviously all the big names are there; Scott, Shackleton, Peary ...

"But my first criteria was always the quality of the photograph, regardless of who it was. Part of the joy of the selection was also the chance to bring forward the story with portraits of people who don't get books written about them."

Alternating with the historic images are the colour shots by Martin Hartley, who comments in the book that the "frozen-face look" remains by far the most requested image from any polar shoot, although his own polar portraits, while including the mandatory quotient of facial ice, also capture the cosmopolitan diversity of men and women working in the polar regions today, from adventurers and scientists to cooks and mechanics. These include the British explorer Pen Hadow, looking suitably frosted at Resolute Bay in Canada's High Arctic, one of the most northerly settlements in the world, and the expansive grin of Randy Reid, a Barbados-born chef at the South Camp Inn there – who fuels up adventurers like Hadow before they set off.

Rosie Stancer, the diminutive but determined Arctic adventurer – "a mix of Tinkerbell and Terminator" – appears training in Essex, while Sir Wally Herbert, eminent polar adventurer and artist, was photographed quietly at home in the Highlands shortly before he died last year, still exuding a sense of smouldering determination.

Hartley's studies also include Professor Hugh Brody, the anthropologist, author and film-maker who spent years living and working with the Inuit in the Arctic. And it is Brody who reminds us, in a telling afterword, that while we may think in terms of explorers pitting themselves against inhospitable northern wastes, for many people these places are home, and the book contains several striking pictures, old and new, of Inuit people.

"Too often," says Lewis-Jones, "the heroic accounts fail to mention the help that local people have given. I wanted to level things out a bit, to remind us that not only are there Inuit people for whom the Arctic is home, but it is also living space for those working there. It's not just all about people racing for the Pole."

Face to Face: Polar Portraits is published by the Scott Polar Research Institute, priced 40 hardback and 25 paperback on Monday 10 November.