photo by
Elizabeth Iannuzzi
In awe of the awestruck
an interview with Caroline Alexander

How did you become interested in the Endurance exhibition?

I was a freelance writer with no background in photography or curatorship. I was very much taken with Shackleton's story once reading "South." Then I read everything I could put my hands on. I developed an obsessive interest. I wrote "Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition" (about the cat aboard Endurance, Mrs. Chippy). While doing that I went through Hurley's photographs but I never put that much into it because the photographs I saw from books weren't of good quality. What I saw were clouded, rough work prints. I was completely dazzled when I saw how many and how surreally good they were. I was amazed that they had never been exhibited in any comprehensive way.

What was the next step for you?

I was traveling blind. I approached the American Museum of Natural History. Here I was, coming in with a grubby little pile of photographs, blathering about a turn-of-the-century expedition. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cullman 3rd agreed to put up the development money. I was guest curator because I knew the work. I went on a ferocious research trip, contacting family members. They were extremely helpful. Many offered artifacts as they had hung onto a few odds and ends out of pure sentiment.

What is in the exhibition?

Hurley's photographs and some artifacts. The prints were made directly from the glass negatives. It's the only exhibition of its kind. Major art critics have been falling all over themselves over Hurley's work. The photographs are the heart of the exhibition.

The exhibition seems to have struck people's imaginations.

The most interesting to watch was how this rather small, obscure show took hold. We sat back and watched as this thing began to bubble up-a genuine phenomenon, as opposed to marketing.

Why is that?

It's about an adventure disaster. As the world becomes more and more accessible and controllable, there's a kind of wonderment that resists all of that.

Do you know what made the Endurance exhibition so compelling to you?

Yes. It was gentlemanly survival in desperate straits. There was no vitriolic behavior. People have an opportunity to take a nostalgic, wistful look over their shoulders at values long gone. As we leave one century and set foot into another, we can look back and recognize the type of values they operated with. These men steered their course by leadership.
For example, Shackleton was 40. He was a frustrated explorer and his expedition had gone awry. He immediately regrouped and focused on getting the men out. His men said, after his death in his 50s, that he always put the welfare of his company above the goal of the expedition.
We're so goal oriented that the notion of giving something up when we're so tantalizingly close is foreign. His sacred task was the return of the men to safety.
There was no love lost among a lot of the men. The ethic of that time was not to be in bad form, rude, or insulting. There was a civilized veneer even where starvation was looming. This was the result of good breeding among the leader and the men he led.
Of all places where group dynamics fall apart is America in the late twentieth century. Who swallows their thoughts and opinions in deference to the good of the group? Yet we are drawn to the magnetism and old-world leadership Shackleton displayed, though we recognize that we could no operate like that.
I think that this element is very apparent in the book (Alexander's book of the same name accompanies the exhibition). Shackleton's deft leadership has struck everyone because the crew was a group that really did hang together. A mark of their cohesiveness is that they never caused dissension despite the fact that they were made of diverse people,sailors, officers, scientists. And keep in mind that being shipwrecked is the worst thing that can happen to a professional sailor.

You said earlier that Hurley's photographs taken during the ordeal were surreally good. How do you mean?

Technically, his black and white images of the white desert are dazzling. He had an eye for light, an eye that was flawless. He achieved a depth of field into infinity, yet close up, you can see the grains of crystal ice. This landscape was extremely difficult to photograph.

What do you know about him?

He was as tough as nails, an extremely hardy specimen who liked to see himself as a "tough Aussie" among a bunch of soft British.
He really loved that landscape of shimmering light, colors at dawn. In the middle of polar night, he writes, "Hail to thee, they wondrous land." What kept him continually on the move was his love of the landscape-the landscape God made him for.