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The icemen cometh

An exhibition of photographs charting the journeys of Scott and Shackleton across Antarctica are the finest of their type ever produced

The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace calls its latest exhibition of photographs of Antarctic exploration, The Heart of the Great Alone after a description, by Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Captain Scott's fateful expedition of 1910-12.

It's right in the sense of the place. The Antarctic, in contrast to the Arctic, was a true wilderness when Scott, Shackleton and others first started pushing in to the interior, partly in the race to be first at the South Pole. Barren was the word they used about it. Haunting is the one that most strikes the viewer as one looks at some of the extraordinary large scale prints from the glass negatives on display.

Taken under the most extreme conditions of cold, with fingers sticking to the metal and the apparatus cumbersome and slow to operate, they represent some of the finest and most majestic pictures of the natural environment ever produced, the equal of Ansel Adams's later and better-known images of Yosemite Park and the High Sierra in America's West. They are also tinged, at least in retrospect, with an air of melancholy, images of virgin territory seen when men could still look on these wonders and sense awe, before modern technology made exploration more commonplace and global warming threatened their existence.

And then there is the specific context of these pictures. The Queen's Gallery's display of prints, donated to George V following the royally blessed expeditions, are of Scott's fatal attempt to be first to the South Pole in 1910-12 and Shackleton's equally frustrated but not fatal attempt to cross Antarctica a couple of years later.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott from the Royal Navy made it to his goal (but several weeks after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen got there – some said sneakily– first), dying with his three companions on the way back to base. Ernest Shackleton, formerly of the Merchant Navy, made it to the Antarctic continent in appalling conditions. His main vessel was trapped in the ice and he, and his team, were forced to take a perilous voyage by lifeboats to the nearest firm land on Elephant Island. Shackleton, with five companions, then made an extraordinarily courageous and navigationally brilliant voyage in an open boat 800 miles to a whaling stage on South Georgia to fetch help, eventually saving all his party.

The photographs of the expeditions are both documents of history and works of art in their own right and the Queen's Gallery has organised them with great skill at both levels. The rise in polar exploration coincided with the flowering of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the plate-glass camera succeeded the paint brush as the interpreter of wilderness. The two expeditions shown here were the first to be accompanied by professional photographers, the better to raise funds through slide shows and the sale of postcards and reproductions after the event. Ponting, who accompanied Scott, had been an official photographer for the Japanese army in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. The Australian Frank Hurley had been on an Australasian expedition to the region before.

Scott and Shackleton, both of whom took some very good photographsthemselves, were fortunate. Ponting in particular was a photographer of real artistic sensibility and endless curiosity. He had his own studio on the boat and on the land hut built after the men abandoned ship to avoid becoming icebound. And he took to his task with endless enthusiasm. There is a marvellous description by Scott in the diary discovered in the tent where the explorer and his last companions died, of his watching helplessly as Ponting madly leapt from ice-floe to ice floe in an effort to avoid the killer whales he had tried to photograph only to have them turn on him.

His study of the expedition's ships seen through the mouth of an ice cavern, Grotto in an Iceberg is justly famous, a magnificent composition of black masts and fine rigging seen through an ice formation curving like a wave around the opening. But there are other photographs when he captures the effect of light on cloud and sea which are truly astonishing in their mood. Although the photography was black and white, the light was not and, in an effort the better to convey the atmosphere he printed some of his negatives on blue or orange paper. Midnight in the Antarctic summer, 30 January 1911 is one of the truly great pictures of the polar world, as is his winter study of The Freezing of the Sea, April 1911.

Frank Hurley on Shackleton's expedition was at times Ponting's equal but more of a storyteller. Shackleton's attempt to cross Antartica foundered early on when his ship, Endurance, became totally icebound, leaving the expedition drifting helplessly with the currents across the Weddell Sea before the ship was finally crushed and sank. Hurley's pictures of the stricken ship and its death throes are brilliantly evocative as he takes the ghostly shape of the ship, the ice covering its rigging, through the lumps of ice and across a field of ice flowers. In his series of large scale views, – he had been forced to discard some 400 negatives when the expedition took to the small boats – the ship itself becomes a living beast felled by the nature around.

In a second room, the gallery shows Ponting's and Hurley's photographs of the men themselves. It is hard to look at them without the sense of waste that was to be. Scott's expedition in particular has aroused endless argument over its eventual death toll. Were the expeditions the reflections of the thirst for knowledge or a vainglorious desire to be "first"? You can make up your own mind. Of their courage there is no doubt. As these photographs amply show, it was man against the elements with man very much in the diminutive. Of the wondrous state of nature they encountered and recorded, made all the more painful by what is happening now, there is equally little room for argument. But was it all worthwhile? As the faces in these pictures turn from initial healthy optimism to haggard desperation, it is hard not to feel some doubt.

Altogether a moving and thought-provoking show, with a fine accompanying book.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography, Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, London SW1 (020 7766 7301) to 15 April