In the summer of 1957-58 the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) became the first people to successfully cross the desert of ice known as Antarctica. It was one of the biggest triumphs of exploration in recent human history. In the centuries prior, cartographers had labeled the mysterious continent as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita–“Southern Land Not Yet Known.”
The journey was long thought impossible, especially after explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt in 1914 (his ship, Endurance, was gripped by ice and sank before his party set foot on the continent). The 1958 expedition, carried out in six vehicles and with dog teams, was a feat of technology and of human willpower, something Shackleton called “the last great expedition that can be made.”
New Zealander George Lowe was the 12-man expedition team’s official photographer. He documented the treacherous journey in its entirety, juggling a number of cameras and shooting on 16mm cine film, medium-format black and white, and 35mm color transparencies. In extreme cases, Lowe managed to create pictures at -58 degrees fahrenheit.
Now, in The Crossing of Antarctica: Original Photographs from the Epic Journey That Fulfilled Shackleton’s Dream, out this month from publisher Thames & Hudson, a trove of unpublished images from Lowe’s archives are brought together for the first time. On the centenary of Shackleton’s failed Endurance expedition come these awe-inspiring shots of the TAE’s ship, Magga Dan, smashing a path through ice; landscapes of snow punctuated only by flocks of penguins; and racy collages explorers made from prints of pinup girls.
Alongside written reflections from explorers and polar experts, like Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Peter Fuchs (son of TAE leader Sir Vivian Fuchs), Lowe’s photographs offer a humanizing look at the since-deified explorers, depicting their beards of ice and feasts of tinned vegetables for Christmas dinner. It also gives readers a visceral sense just how raw and brutal the conditions were, something that can be hard to envision while comfortably close to the equator. (“Polar exploration,” wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard in “The Worst Journey in the World, 1910-1913,” “is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”)
In addition to compiling his rarely-seen photographs, Lowe wrote most of the book, reflecting on his journey across the last unknown continent. But before he could see the project to completion Lowe passed away in 2013.
The Crossing of Antarctica is available from Thames & Hudson for $40 here.