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January 30, 2013

Antarctic Item 017

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This is yet another Antarctic artifact in my collection that resembles a makeshift ashtray. Its uneven cut suggests that it too was cut from a can. Unlike the previous ones however, it has no ash marks embedded in the base.

Why would this be? Well, I imagine it was fashioned by the the Nimrod Expedition as a back-up ashtray to replace their principal one should it ever be lost. The principal receptacle was slow to be lost however since it was dearly treasured by the party. As a result, the back-up became a gas tank cap for their motorcar. There it toiled until the beloved principal ashtray was finally misplaced. The back-up was ecstatic (to the extent that ashtrays can be) for it could finally show what it was cut out to be. However the team observed that by this time the back-up ashtray’s inner surface was saturated with all manners of petroleum and combustible by-products, eliminating any possibility of safe contact with live embers. In despair, the back-up released its grip on the gas tank, tossing itself into deep snow. This might have been a sad ending were it not for that it lay undisturbed for a full century, enabling it to harvest one of the more remarkably handsome coats of Antarctic rust. By the time it was unearthed in 2009, it was the envy of its oxidized peers across the continent.

Or at least that’s the way I imagine it.


Filed under: Items Reclaimed from the Ice — mbartalos @ 8:16 pm

December 23, 2012

Antarctic Bookshelf 5: Letters from a Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake

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Several polar explorers have penned memorable firsthand accounts of their adventures; Ernest Shackleton’s The Heart of the Antarctic and Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World come to mind as classics (both of which I’ll cover in future posts). In 1948, Letters from a Lost Uncle, written and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, took its place in the polar journey canon. Unlike Shackleton’s and Cherry-Garrard’s accounts however, Peake’s is pure fiction. It is funny and wildly imaginative, treading fairly absurd territory. Yet in bringing its characters to life and satirizing the adventure genre so well, the book carries emotion and plausibility, conveying a saga about human perseverance and triumph against all odds — the stuff that successful adventure tales are made of.

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Letters from a Lost Uncle recounts the exploits of a shipwrecked explorer through the letters he writes to his nephew in England. We read the peg-legged adventurer’s missives in typewritten form, combined with explanatory drawings to create a wonderfully messy, energetically collaged journal of dispatches. The uncle’s subservient travel companion is a large turtle-like creature called Jackson who proves to be simultaneously exasperating and indispensable. Together they navigate the polar wastelands in quest of the awesome and mythic White Lion — Emperor of the Snows.

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Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an English storyteller, artist, poet, and illustrator. He is known for his surreal fiction, notably his Gormenghast books, one of which earned him the Royal Society of Literature prize. He also illustrated classic writings such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. His estate maintains a website about his works at mervynpeake.org.

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Letters from a Lost Uncle was created in 1945 and first published in 1948 by Eyre & Spottiswood Publishers Ltd. in Great Britain. Peake requested the book’s withdrawal shortly after publication due its poor printing quality. It was later reissued at a reduced price, with the original price overprinted. The newest edition, pictured here, marvelously reproduces Peake’s artwork for the first time in four colors. It was published in 2001 by Methuen Publishing Ltd. of London, which issued the book in 1977 as well.

Many thanks to my friend and world traveler Donald Fortescue for sending this entertaining yarn my way.


Filed under: Antarctic Bookshelf — mbartalos @ 10:44 pm

November 30, 2012

Antarctic Item 016

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Like the previous object, Antarctic Item 016 lends itself to functioning as an ashtray. In all likelihood, it was.

Who used it? Well, I imagine Shackleton tapping his pipe into it at Cape Royds, splitting the rim at the upper left as he strategized his march to the Pole in 1909. The crack reminded him of ruptured ice, and being a touch superstitious, he brought the ashtray along on the journey to ward off such dangers. Nevertheless, ice crevasses continually hindered his team’s progress, swallowing one of their sledge-hauling ponies and nearly two of their men. Eventually Shackleton came to regard the split ashtray as a bad luck omen, discarding it on the return trek in the Dry Valleys. It was a wise move, assuring his team safe passage from there back to Cape Royds.

Or at least that’s the way I imagine it.


Filed under: Items Reclaimed from the Ice — mbartalos @ 8:13 pm

October 30, 2012

Antarctic Bookshelf 4: The Endurance by Caroline Alexander

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Shackleton aficionados seeking a companion piece to Alfred Lansing’s classic Endurance will find great satisfaction in Caroline Alexander’s book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Following Lansing by 39 years and the expedition itself by 84, Alexander elaborates further on the crew’s personalities, interactions, and ordeals. The text is a product of deep research, contact with families of the expedition members, and access to documents and diaries which, according to the author, were safeguarded for many years.

Many of the crew’s diary entries are juicy, opinionated, and humorous. They reveal as much about the writers as they do about their colleagues (names are named) and since the majority of the crew kept journals of some kind, their collective writings describe the group dynamic comprehensively.

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Distinguishing this book are 140 photographs taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photo documentarian. Hurley, an Australian, had run away from home at age 13 and worked at a steel mill and dockyards before returning to study at the local technical school and attend science lectures at the University of Sydney. He eventually became a self-taught photographer, setting himself up in the picture-postcard business. Hurley reportedly had an early taste for danger, gaining a reputation for putting himself at risk in order to achieve spectacular images such as situating himself on railroad tracks to capture oncoming trains on film. Led by his adventurousness, at age 25 Hurley signed on as official photographer to Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 which explored the 2000-mile long Antarctic coastline south of Australia. That voyage subsequently brought Hurley to Shackleton’s attention.

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Enlisted as Shackleton’s photographer in 1914, Hurley advanced his reputation for stopping at nothing to secure a memorable picture. He ventured into darkness, fog and uncertain terrain to get his shots, and scaled the extreme heights of the ship’s rigging to capture majestic panoramas. As Lionel Greenstreet, the vessel’s First Officer, wrote: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera & would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.”

Alexander elaborates on Hurley’s dedication to his art: “Once the Endurance became trapped, Hurley turned his camera to both the domestic life of the ship, and to the vision of it improbably suspended in the protean world of the ice. On duty at all hours of the day or night, sometimes arising at midnight to take photographs, he was keenly sensitive to the variegated and ever-changing play of light, continually elated at this spectacle of sky and ice and shadows.”

Hurley’s nighttime images of the doomed Endurance are among his best-known photos. His diary entry of August 27, 1915, describes this undertaking: “During night take flashlight of ship beset by pressure. This necessitated some 20 flashes, one behind each salient pressure hummock, no less than 10 of the flashes being required to satisfactorily illuminate the ship herself. Half blinded after the successive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst hummocks, bumping shins against projecting ice points & stumbling into deep snow drifts.”

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The importance of Hurley’s work was not lost on Shackleton. As the Endurance was going under, ‘The Boss’ saw to it that 120 of the photographer’s best images and some motion-picture footage be saved from the sea. Having curated their selection, Shackleton and Hurley then smashed the remaining 400 glass negatives to expel any temptation of taking them along, recognizing that the party’s survival depended on meeting space and weight limitations. Twenty of the rescued plates include Hurley’s pioneering images using the briefly popular Paget process of color photography, featured in an earlier Long View post.

Obligated to cast off his professional equipment as well, Hurley captured the rest of the expedition on a handheld Vest Pocket Kodak camera and three rolls of film. In testament to his talent, the small-format photos are as fascinating as the larger images and as revealing as diary entries. To see the men’s eyes is to connect with them emotionally; to witness their transformation over the course of the expedition is to comprehend their ordeal; to behold their rescue on Elephant Island is to fathom heroism and miraculousness against all odds.

The very first time I read Lansing’s Endurance, I was unaware of Alexander’s book and kept wishing for a thorough photographic reference to navigate by. Alexander provides this much needed pictorial resource, and her text too is an enlightening complement to Lansing’s narration. With both books you may, like me, find yourself reading Lansing and Alexander side-by-side, cross-referencing the two for the ultimate Endurance experience.

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The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition was first published in 1998 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in association with the American Museum of Natural History. The book served as the catalog for the museum’s 1999 Shackleton exhibition which showcased Frank Hurley’s photos and film footage as well as the legendary James Caird lifeboat.


Filed under: Antarctic Bookshelf,Antarctic History and Exploration — mbartalos @ 2:08 pm

September 30, 2012

Antarctic Item 015

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I’m back to posting items that I acquired in Antarctica for my project. The process of photographing, cataloging, and assessing the objects is a key step to understanding them and configuring them into the artwork.

I tend to post batches by theme; the next few items will be metallic and round. By observing and comparing these seemingly similar artifacts in close succession, their unique character is revealed, suggesting varied origins and histories.

Antarctic Item 015 appears to be part of a can that was severed close to its end. It may have been devised as a crude ashtray, judging by its shape and smudges on the base. The red rust caking its rim suggests that it is decades old, dating from the days that smoking and exploration went hand in hand.


Filed under: Items Reclaimed from the Ice — mbartalos @ 8:11 pm

August 31, 2012

Antarctic Bookshelf 3: Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Ernest Shackleton is a central figure to my Long View Project which draws heavily on his Nimrod Expedition at Cape Royds. So I’ve been reading more about him (and by him) to gain insight into his legendary status in history. Most recently I read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage which became a bestseller on its publication in 1959. Still in print, it’s perhaps the most popular book about Shackleton ever written.

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A brief synopsis, spoiler and all:

Lansing’s story opens with a ship’s demise in the frozen Weddell Sea; its crew of 28 evacuate onto the pack ice that is crushing their vessel. The stranded party, we learn, is Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17 (better known as the Endurance Expedition) whose initial objective was to attempt the first land crossing of Antarctica. Denied of even reaching land, the Endurance crew quickly shift their sights to surviving atop drifting ice floes.

Months later as the ice breaks up, they take to three lifeboats which they’d mercifully salvaged from their ship before it sank. In the face of relentless hardship and weather, the team, still miraculously intact, reaches tiny Elephant Island in the sub-Antarctic Ocean. They are on land for the first time in 497 days but the isolated frozen crag offers no hope of passing ships or rescue.

Consequently, Shackleton sets off with five of his men in the lifeboat James Caird for South Georgia Island to bring relief. The 800-mile journey succeeds against all odds, but lands them on the uninhabited side of the mountainous island, necessitating the first overland trek ever to the other side. Through more ice and snow, this too they survive — barely.

By this time winter has set in, surrounding Elephant Island in ice. Another four months pass before Shackleton can access it by rescue ship. When he does, he finds his entire party still alive, concluding one of the most incredible survival stories of all time.

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Alfred Lansing wasn’t the only one to chronicle the Endurance adventure. Shackleton and at least four of his crew members published accounts of the voyage upon returning home, and there’s been a steady flow of literature since. But Lansing’s narrative stands apart for the sheer amount of research involved in piecing it together. According to his publisher, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving expedition members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. It shows in the nuanced descriptions of the men and their personalities, opinions, emotions, and relationships. These real-life human perspectives color the story, move it forward, and lend credibility to an extreme tale that could otherwise pass for fiction.

With Shackleton at the center of each unfolding drama, a comprehensive profile of his leadership emerges: ‘The Boss,’ as his men called him, was immensely respected for his generous character and principles of fairness. He shunned preferential treatment and partook in the grunt work equally. His ability to remain positive and decisive under the most challenging circumstances brought out the best in his team, and he maintained morale by keeping everyone occupied and essential to the effort. Perhaps most importantly, he possessed a sense of humanity that placed his crew’s mental and physical well-being ahead of all else.

Which isn’t to say that The Boss was infallible. He made his share of misjudgements along the way which Lansing readily points out. Readers may wonder why the voyage proceeded at all, given that the Weddell Sea’s ice conditions that year were the worst in memory and that veteran whalers there tried dissuading Shackleton from sailing until the following season.

My guess is that quitting simply went against Shackleton’s grain. Also, the trip was a limited-time opportunity: World War I was just erupting, reducing the chance of another try at the expedition anytime soon. And most certainly, his assessment of the situation differed from that of the whalers. As his granddaughter Alexandra points out: “He was a very practical person, and he would have never attempted anything that he thought could not be done. The main reason was that, above all, he had the lives of his men to consider.”

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The first edition of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is shown in the photos above. It was published in 1959 by McGraw-Hill New York and Hodder & Stoughton, London. It’s desirable for the annotated endpaper map and a collection of captioned photos by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. A subsequent edition published by Carroll & Graf (1986/1996), pictured below, lacks the map and interior photos. The latest edition, issued by Basic Books (1999), announces a map and illustrations as part of the package.

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Expect a wave of interesting new print and online material to emerge as the Endurance centenary approaches. There are a number of exciting events and celebrations in the works too, including adventurer Tim Jarvis’s Shackleton Epic which will attempt to recreate the journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a replica of the James Caird using similar materials, clothing, food and equipment to that of the 1916 crossing. It should be a good one to follow.


Filed under: Antarctic Bookshelf,Antarctic History and Exploration — mbartalos @ 11:36 pm

July 9, 2012

Long View Study No. 21 (Cape Royds)

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My series on Antarctic research stations continues with a salute to Ernest Shackleton’s Cape Royds hut, home base to his team’s 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Nimrod Expedition. The Royds hut facilitated cutting-edge polar science of its day in the areas of geology, zoology, geography and meteorology. The scientific team’s director, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David, led from here the first parties ever to reach the South Magnetic Pole and the summit of Mt. Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. Royds was also the launch pad for Shackleton’s 1908 attempt for the South Geographic Pole. His team trekked to within 97 nautical miles (180.6 km / 112.2 mi) of their goal, the farthest south attained by any expedition at the time.

It was also at Royds that Shackleton’s men printed and bound Aurora Australis, the first book ever published in Antarctica. It consisted of of essays, poems and drawings printed on a hand press in an edition of about 25 completed copies whose wooden covers were fashioned from provisions cases. Such crates, in abundance, were repurposed by them for hut shelving and furniture as well.

My use of wood, letterpress makeready, typographic letterforms, and book / bookshelf structure in Long View Study No. 21 allude to the Shackleton team’s production of Aurora Australis and their resourcefulness. The collage’s central figure is Sir Ernest himself who edited the book, wrote its two prefaces, and contributed an ode to Mount Erebus under the pseudonym NEMO.

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My piece functions either as a wall hanging or a free-standing artwork. A detached wooden element serves as a shelf embellishment in wall mode or as a bottom support in free-standing mode. In either case the right-hand ‘shelf unit’ is modifiable with extra shelves of varying lengths. The hinged ‘spine’ indicates the manner in which the complete string of Long View panels will connect to one another to form an accordion-fold structure.


June 30, 2012

Antarctic Bookshelf 2: Imagining Antarctica by Sandy Sorlien

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One of my favorite Antarctic photo books wasn’t photographed in Antarctica at all. It was
shot in the Northeastern United States to create a highly unique representation of the southernmost continent. The project is titled Imagining Antarctica, authored by roaming photographer, urbanist, and writer Sandy Sorlien.

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Left: Peak, New Jersey; Right: Birdbath, Philadelphia.

Sorlien conceived of this photo essay upon having been denied an NSF Artists and Writers Program award to visit Antarctica. In lieu of photographing there, she turned her lens on winter terrain closer to home — New England and her resident state of Pennsylvania. Her pictures were taken with a plastic Holga camera known for its quirky distortion of light, focus, and perspective. These effects were deftly put to work in capturing isolated patches of snow, ice, rocks and sky of ambiguous distance and scale to create a brilliantly convincing series of pseudo-polar landscapes.

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Snow, New York.

As it happens, Sorlien’s brother Christopher, a geologist, was dispatched to Antarctica on an NSF research mission soon after she embarked on this project. Sandy seized the opportunity to collaborate and add dimension to her photo essay by juxtaposing his emailed descriptions of the actual Antarctic coast with her imagined vistas.

The similarities between image and text are often striking, lending odd credibility to Sorlien’s photographs even as her true subjects and locations are revealed in the captions. This playful blurring of truth and perception serves to put two seemingly disparate regions of Earth in direct dialogue with each other, lyrically revealing their connectedness.

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Left: Landscape, Rhode Island; Right: Ice, Philadelphia.

Imagining Antarctica was published on the occasion of Sandy Sorlien’s exhibition at List Gallery, Swarthmore College, January 21- February 20, 2000. The book is now out of print but with much perseverance I was able to obtain a (signed!) copy from photo-eye. [Update: Copies are readily obtainable by querying through the author's website.]

Many thanks to my friend Susan West for introducing me to this imaginative project.

This post is the second entry in my Antarctic Bookshelf series covering notable polar-themed books. The first was Antarctica by Emil Schulthess.


Filed under: Antarctic Bookshelf — mbartalos @ 8:17 pm

May 30, 2012

Long View Study No. 20 (Bernardo O’Higgins)

This recent cut-paper composition takes Chile’s General Bernardo O’Higgins Antarctic Base for its theme. The artwork is part of my series on Antarctic research stations operating on the continent and its nearby islands. With these posts I’ll be examining the bases’ fields of study, their differing implementations of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, and their associative architecture, infrastructure, and role in the context of a changing planet.

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Bernardo O’Higgins base is a year-round research facility near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Named for the leader of the Chilean military forces that won independence from Spain, O’Higgins is administered by the Chilean Army which provides logistical support, maintains the infrastructure, and assists in scientific work at the station. The base conducts research into ultraviolet measurements, hydrology, oceanography, and human physiology as affected by periods of darkness and light. It also supports studies of the magnetosphere which envelops and shields the planet from the solar wind.

Prominent on the site (and in the center of my artwork) is the German Antarctic Receiving Station (GARS), a satellite ground station enabling reception of high-resolution remote sensing data on the south polar region. The nine-meter parabolic antenna is a joint venture between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Instituto Antarctico Chileno (INACH), Chile’s Antarctic research institute.

O’Higgins was established in 1948, making it one of the longest-running Antarctic bases of continuous operation. Interestingly it was built in the midst of a Gentoo penguin rookery which still exists. This perch, separated from the Antarctic continent by 50 meters of water at high tide, offers a unique opportunity to study the wildlife and ecology of the region. According to the most recently issued U.S. Antarctic Treaty Inspection Report: “The base keeps a log book documenting environmental impacts on a weekly basis. Penguin nests, eggs and chicks are monitored, as well as other birds in the vicinity of the base. All monitoring is visual; there is no tagging or touching of the birds.” The report however adds: “While base personnel said they attempt to maintain a distance from the nesting penguins to prevent any disturbance, many of the nests are on or near base facilities where people must pass during daily activities, and thus close human contact with these animals is unavoidable.”

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O'Higgins and its surrounding penguins (click to enlarge).

O’Higgins Base made news this year when its seawaters were found to contain bacteria that are resistant to nearly all kinds of antibiotics. The research was led by Uppsala University‘s Björn Olsen and Jorge Hernández who detected higher concentrations of the superbugs nearer to the sewage outfalls of O’Higgins and two other Chilean bases. Linking the phenomenon to the quality of sewage treatment remains tenuous though, as Hernández noted that “Chile has provided its permanent bases with modern equipment for waste water treatment that is constantly improving.”

Scientists are now investigating wildlife for clues since the culprit bacteria were also found in gulls in France. Observations suggest that the bacteria may maintain their super-resilience long beyond their exposure to antibiotics, and that they may survive in the wild using animals as hosts.

That possibility is of concern at O’Higgins, situated as it is in a rookery. Penguins nearby have been checked and are deemed free of that bacteria which carry genes that make the ESBL enzyme capable of destroying penicillin, cephalosporins and related antibiotics. Other types of sea birds in proximity to the station are next to undergo testing. Whatever the outcome, the existence of these microorganisms in Antarctica indicates the troubling extent to which drug-resistant bacteria are proliferating on Earth.


April 30, 2012

Antarctic Bookshelf 1: Antarctica by Emil Schulthess

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There’s nothing quite like sharing a favorite book, or better yet, a collection of favorite books around a theme. Today I’m introducing a new category to the Long View Project blog that does just that. It’s called Antarctic Bookshelf whose posts will feature polar-related editions that inspire me in one way or another. Some of the titles are popular, some obscure; some in print, others out-of-print; ranging from trade books to artists’ books.

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My selections follow no hard set of criteria. A book may have strong writing, concept, design, photography, artwork, historical significance, or any combination of these. At least one in the lineup has an outlandish sense of humor and most are rich in creativity and imagination. In the end, what ties these books together (besides their references to Antarctica) is each one’s ability to address the continent in a unique and memorable way.

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The first on my list is Antarctica by Emil Schulthess. This photo-documentary book provides an uncommonly artful portrait of Antarctica and U.S. polar research in the late 1950s.

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A striking feature of this book is its ‘wide-and-narrow’ format, lending itself to sweeping panoramas and lavish detail. This approach has since been imitated by other Antarctic photography books, but never as cohesively. This book is set apart by an exquisite sense of composition, color and design in its photography and layout alike. The reason is that Schulthess (1913-1996) was both an accomplished graphic designer and Life magazine photographer, overseeing every aspect of his books. Antarctica is but one of several handsome publications he authored, including photo-surveys of Africa, China, the Amazon, Soviet Union, USA, and his Swiss motherland.

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Another thing I love about this book is its informative text. Schulthess’s captions are incredibly thorough (often paragraphs long) and well-researched. Yet he skillfully groups and places them unobtrusively apart from the photos, allowing the images to take center stage. In this way Antarctica functions equally well as a coffee-table book and historical resource depending on where the reader turns.

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Schulthess introduces the project in an essay: “When the plans for an extensive exploration of the Antarctic continent on the occasion of the International Geophysical Year 1957/58 became known, an old dream of mine appeared to come within reach: a photographic documentation of Antarctica. Such a project had been in my mind for many years. I was particularly anxious to take photographs of the sun and its course in this extreme Southern part of the world. Thanks to American friends, who gave me every possible help, I obtained permission to join the American Naval Operation Deep Freeze IV.”

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Operation Deep Freeze was the codename for a series of United States missions to Antarctica beginning in 1955–56, and International Geophysical Year was a collaborative effort between forty nations to carry out earth science studies from the North Pole to the South Pole and at points in between. The term ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ still endures, now signifying general U.S. operations in Antarctica, particularly the regular missions coordinated by the military to resupply research bases.

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Schulthess set out in October 1958, flying from Christchurch to McMurdo and on to the South Pole. He then traveled by icebreaker from Marble Point in the Dry Valleys around the Ross Ice Shelf to Little America V — the biggest American scientific station in Antarctica at the time. Little America V was two years old and covered in ten feet of snow but still stationed 250 men when Schulthess visited. From there he voyaged deep inland by snow tractor to Byrd Station and into hitherto unexplored territory to capture more extraordinary images. He wrapped his voyage up along the coast of Victoria Land and Wilkes Land, setting course for Australia in March 1959.

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Antarctica was first published in 1960 by Artemis Verlag, Zürich and by Simon & Schuster, New York (U.S. issue pictured here). Both editions are long out of print but copies can be found online with a bit of digging. I’d like to extend a big thanks to my friend Steve Woodall at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book and Paper Arts for sending this treasure my way.


Filed under: Antarctic Bookshelf — mbartalos @ 11:13 pm
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