“Visions, delirium and nightmares!” The truly epic fails of Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), iconic photographer of the Antarctic and the first and only pioneer of “distortography”.

Photograph by Herbert George Ponting, ‘Camera Caricature’, a grid of 24 photographic portraits all made from an original in the top left corner using a ‘distortograph’. Museum no. RPS.3336-2018. ©Victoria and Albert Museum.
Self portrait of Herbert George Ponting and cinematograph, January 1912, taken during the British Antarctic (“Terra Nova”) Expedition (1910-1913).
Herbert Ponting, Scott’s last expedition. Lieutenant Henry Robertson Bowers, 1910. Museum no. E.1309-2000.
©Victoria and Albert Museum.
One of Ponting’s many iconic arctic images from Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and South Pole.
Dog team resting during Scott’s last expedition,
Herbert Ponting, 1910. Museum no. E.1313-2000.
©Victoria and Albert Museum

Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935) is best known expedition photographer and cinematographer for Robert Falcon Scott’s legendary Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and South Pole (1910–1913). In this role, he captured some of the most enduring images of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. 

Herbert also had a lesser known role. That of an inveterate tinkerer with aspirations as an innovator who attempted on numerous occasions to popularise his experimental inventions.

He would fail.

Born in England, Ponting’s first commercial venture involved moving to the American west to operate a fruit ranch. Perhaps a harbinger of future business disaster, the business ran into difficulty and he returned to England with his wife, Mary Biddle Elliott, and their daughter Mildred in 1898.

On his return, Ponting his his second career as a photographer. He reported on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, and travelled Asia. Travelling extensively in Burma, Korea, Java, China and India he produced stereographs and worked as freelance for periodicals like Harper’s Bazaar, and Illustrated London News.

On the crest of this wave of success, Ponting really hit the big time. He was chosen to be the first professional photographer to take part in an Antarctic expedition.

Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13.

He froze his ass off in the Antarctic, taking over 1700 photographs of the expedition on a folding metal quarter plate camera that was strong and light enough to be taken on sledging expeditions.

Ponting returned to England from the expedition in February 1912. His plan was to wait for Scott to return a conquering hero and to have his images used to illustrate Scott’s planned lecture tour.

Of course, this wasn’t to be. Due to the tragic end of the expedition, with the bodies of Scott and his companions found on the Ross Ice shelf in November 1912, his images now spoke only of sorrow, failure and death. Although his expedition imagery was used extensively in the press at the time, they didn’t quite have quite the celebratory feeling that Ponting had originally intended.

Interior of the Kinatome projector, taken from Photographer of the world: the biography of Herbert Ponting, H.J.P Arnold, 1969, Hutchinson & Co, London.

Ever eager and seemingly undaunted, Ponting now embarked on another business venture. Although not by all accounts, a technically minded man, he employed the services of George Ford, an employee of Chromatic Film Printers to create what the pair named the ‘Kinatome’ projector.

The Kinatome was a portable device which, for the first time, allowed the rewinding of film within the machine itself.

The decision to use an unfamiliar film gauge (11-12mm rather than the standard 35mm) swiftly scuppered the fledgling venture. Despite promising beginnings, the projector failed to get traction in the booming moving picture projector market.

Another fail of truly epic proportions. The Kinatome shenanagans cost Ponting more than £20,000, and his American associates even more, some $250,000.

Distortograph -William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago. Herbert George Ponting, 1927.
The Variable Controllable Distortograph Lens on a Newman-Sinclair movie camera, taken from Photographer of the world: the biography of Herbert Ponting, H.J.P Arnold, 1969, Hutchinson & Co, London.

Despite the Kinatome debarcle, Ponting managed to convince George Ford to partner him in one more technical adventure, on that would would allow photographers and film makers ‘to realise their ideas in a manner that has never hitherto been possible’.

This venture was the ‘Variable Controllable Distortograph’. In 1927 he patented the lens attachment he described as “a revolutionary optical system for photographing in caricature or distortion.”

Ever the optimist, Ponting was convinced that his Distortograph was a winner and held the highest hopes for the its success. He described it to a friend as ‘the funniest thing ever done in photography!’

In a brochure for the lens, he enthused about the endless film effects that could be achieved, describing ‘visions, delirium and nightmares!’

Distortograph -William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago. Herbert George Ponting, 1927.
For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy…. He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.” Chicago Tribune.
William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (1869-1944). Mayor of Chicago.

To test and demonstrate what the Distortagraph could do, Ponting made the dubious decision to photograph (or “distortograph”) possibly the most corrupt politician in America at the time.

The flamboyantly corrupt mayor of Chicago, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson was known for his protection of the gangster Al Capone and for colorful campaign stunts, such as staging a mayoral debate with two live rats as his opponents.

He submitted these what he called “characatures” of “Big Bill” with his application for the Distortograph’s patent.

Perhaps needless to say, success didn’t materialise for the Distortograph and there’s little evidence of it ever being used in the motion picture industry. Critics claimed the lens was neither funny nor grotesque enough to make any impact.

This last failure fired Ponting’s disillusion with motion picture experimentation and George Ford never partnered with Ponting again.

After Thompson’s death, two safe deposit boxes in his name were discovered. They contained nearly $1.5 million in cash, some $27 million in today’s money.

Distortograph -William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago. Herbert George Ponting, 1927.
Distortograph -William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago. Herbert George Ponting, 1927.

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