June 23, 2010 / 10:04 AM / 9 years ago

Antarctica of 1959 revealed in black and white

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Cold, white and forbidding the images spring from the glossy pages as they once did from the window of a plane carrying a young photographer into the icy wastelands of Antarctica.

“DeepFreeze! A Photographer’s Antarctic Odyssey in the Year 1959” by Robert McCabe has been published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the race to be the first to the South Pole.

Though a venture capitalist at now defunct Lehman Brothers, McCabe, then 24 and a serious amateur photographer, used his vacation when no one at New York Sunday Mirror Magazine wanted to take up an offer from the U.S. Navy to visit the southern end of the earth. McCabe’s father worked for the Daily Mirror.

After an arduous journey leapfrogging the Pacific by way of Hawaii and New Zealand, his first impressions were of endless distance as they approached the U.S. base at McMurdo Sound.

“You just had images of vast, vast endless glaciers and ice,” said McCabe, who is now 77. “It was an extraordinarily memorable trip at a time when you couldn’t just call a cruise line and take a boat to the edge of Antarctica.”

Despite the pole being reached some 50 years earlier, Antarctic exploration was still in its infancy and McCabe’s 1959 pictures have become historical documents in their own right. Men in white shirts and ties wear large wrist watches and carry pens in their top pockets. They also smoke tobacco and the equipment is reminiscent of a 1950’s sci-fi movie.


Male dominance of the military and scientific community of the time is obvious, with the only picture of a woman in the book being Lili of Lili’s Leis in Hawaii, taken during their stopover.

The narrative is in layman’s terms mostly transcribed at the time from observations made on a reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. Being nonscientific McCabe’s observations are perhaps more relevant.

The clothes that were issued used technology of the time but McCabe observes the cold on arrival was no worse than waiting for a New Haven, Connecticut train on a New York suburban winter morning.

“We were given a huge amount of clothing we carried on to the plane and they reduced the temperature gradually as we approached,” said McCabe. “But when we got there the sun was shining and it was warmer than inside the plane.”

Though the Antarctic remains an inhospitable and dangerous place, he notes the agreeable aspects of the base during his visit.

“Meals are excellent and there is ample supply of beer and movies, mostly Westerns,” he writes in the book, though later he admits the beer is either warm or frozen.

All of the photographs in the book, whether originally color or not, were reproduced in black and white harkening back to earlier, sometimes less successful Antarctic exhibitions such as that of Robert Falcon Scott.

Scott died returning from the pole after his team was narrowly beaten there by a group led by Roald Amundsen. Photos of Scott’s hut and that of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s, who later made one of modern man’s epic sea voyages in an open boat after his ship was crushed by ice, show them preserved as they must have left them.

McCabe now divides his time between New York city and Athens, Greece. He has done several other photography books, including images of Greece, but his trip to the Antarctic remains powerful in his memory.

As he said at the time: “This is a place where a photographer can never sleep in peace”

Reporting by Nick Olivari; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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