Century-old photos chronicle a survival saga in Antarctica at Bowers Museum exhibit

The accomplishment itself, a century ago, is among the most remarkable sagas of human survival in history.

After their ship embedded in ice and later sank, 28 men survived in the Antarctic wilderness and lived to talk about it.

Equally as astounding, though, is the collection of more than 60-plus photos chronicling the journey — preserved, digitalized and re-created in such detail that they look as if they were taken in 2015, not 1915.

The photographic diary, along with artifacts, journal entries, maps and newspaper clippings make up the Bowers Museum’s new exhibit: “Endurance: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley.”

The Bowers is the first venue in the U.S. to host the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 28.

“Endurance” tells the story of Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27, who were attempting to be the first to cross Antarctica.

Frank Hurley, a noted photographer, joined the expedition with the mission of creating a visual journal of the history-making effort.

“When you talk about Ernest Shackleton and Endurance, there is nothing in the history of adventure and exploration and survival quite as compelling as what Shackleton did,” said Peter Keller, Bowers president. “It’s almost unimaginable.”

The explorers’ ship, Endurance, left England in August 1914, sailed to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and South Georgia Island and then departed for the Antarctic on Dec. 11 of that year.

In January 1915, the ship got stuck in a pack of ice in the Weddell Sea.

The crew unsuccessfully tried to break free several times.

“It was nature against us the whole time,” Shackleton wrote.

They lived on the ship for several months, making the best of their ordeal, playing games of dominos in their living quarters, eating dinner together and even celebrating crew members’ birthdays.

All of it captured by Hurley’s camera.

“He really cared about his crew and morale,” Bowers curator Victoria Gerard said of Shackleton, who died in 1922. “It was really an incredible thing to be able to carry that optimism through a really horrifying, life-threatening situation.”

Still encased in ice, Endurance drifted north, was crushed and later sank, forcing the crew to abandon the ship in November 1915.

They ate penguins and seals to survive and, eventually, sled dogs.

“Of New Year resolutions, we have none,” Hurley wrote in his diary in December 1915.

Shackleton and five crew members journeyed 800 miles until they hit land in South Georgia, then returned for the others.

The final crew members were rescued in August 1916.

When the crew abandoned the ship, hundreds of Hurley’s slides were destroyed.

But more than 100 survived.

A few years ago, the World Geographic Society in England took the plates and enlisted a Belgian printer to re-create the images in extraordinary detail.

“Hurley wanted to be able to print in really large format but he was limited by the technology of the time, so we are kind of paying homage to him by being able to print these and show them at sizes he never could have achieved,” Gerard said. “Of course, Shackleton was the leader and we talk about him a lot and he was very influential, but what we are also trying to do here is honor Hurley’s artistic capabilities.”

Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, was at the Bowers for the opening of the Endurance exhibit on Sept. 30.

Shackleton’s granddaughter keeps her grandfather’s legacy alive through the James Caird Society, founded to honor the explorer and provide information about exhibitions.

“I didn’t know my grandfather,” Alexandra Shackleton said. “He was only 47 when he died. My father was only 10. I really learned the story from these magnificent photographs.”

If You Go

What: “Endurance: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley”

When: Till Jan. 28; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

Cost: Ticket costs vary

Information: (714) 567-3600 or bowers.org

LOU PONSI is a contributor to Times Community News.

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