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The Extreme Art Of South Pole Photography

Back in the day, geographic expeditions were documented with paint or pen and ink. Antarctica, however, is a white wildnerness that has mostly been discovered with photographs.

There's a long tradition (and small, insular club) of Antarctic photography. Herbert Ponting in the 1910s; Frank Hurley a few years later; Werner Herzog just a few years ago. And among this cast of extreme adventurers is Robert McCabe, who for 10 days in 1959, during Operation Deep Freeze, photographed one of the U.S. government's first scientific missions in Antarctica.

This year actually marks the 100th anniversary of two major South Pole expeditions that began in 1910: the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, who died en route. And Roald Amundsen's more successful voyage: On Dec. 14, 1911, his team was the first to reach the pole.

Herbert George Ponting and his camera in Antarctica, 1912 National Library of New Zealand via Flickr Commons hide caption

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National Library of New Zealand via Flickr Commons

Imagine being a photographer on those odysseys, schlepping around view cameras and plates — as if sheer survival in subzero temperatures weren't enough to stress about. Even with digital cameras, it's no easy feat. Over the phone from his home in Greece, McCabe explained that in the 1950s, he had to "winterize" his cameras; but he still lost several frames, he said, to a frozen shutter.

When McCabe went down to photograph, the U.S. had just begun its Antarctic research program, which meant huts and tents, not today's developed research stations. And at that particular time of the year, there was virtually no night; with that kind of light, McCabe said, "a photographer can't really sleep."

He had almost entire days of "magic hour" light, when the sun hangs low on the horizon, casting long shadows, glowing on faces and glaciers. And that light did good things for his photographs: In addition to the nostalgic film quality, there's a soft glow and quietness that encapsulates what it must have felt like in that vast, white nothingness.

McCabe's photos can be found in a new book, DeepFreeze! A Photographer's Antarctic Journey in the Year 1959. You can see more on his website, and check out photos by his predecessors found on Flickr Commons: