I have been fortunate this past year to have worked on so many projects for which I have found a wealth of photo references. As with my pieces on the Dyatlov Pass Incident and the Radium Girls, my most recent project focusing on S. A. Andrée’s 1897 expedition to the North Pole was well documented with photographs, which made my job much easier and also a lot of fun to research. The photograph below was taken by Nils Strindberg (a cousin of playwright August Strindberg) just after Andrée’s balloon crashed onto the ice after being airborne for just over two days, and was also the first photograph I found when I started reading about this story.
Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon, also references this photograph as being the first he saw of the many images Strindberg captured with him camera. In the first chapter of his book, he describes the eeriness of the photo’s lack of horizon, due to the whiteness of the snow blending with the whiteness of the sky. He says at first he assumed that it was staged, and, upon realizing it was not, was filled with a sense of dread for the two men pictured. “Their craft is wrecked and the landscape is forbidding,” he says, “and something about the static quality of their forms makes their situation seem utterly hopeless.” Like Wilkinson, it was this photograph that inspired me to seek out more information on Andrée and his journey, and eventually create a short comic about the incident.
In 1897 Andrée’s ambition to be the first person to reach the North Pole, and to do it using a hydrogen balloon, seemed such a fantastically modern concept that is could have been ripped from the pages of a Jules Verne novel. The expedition captured the world’s attention, and the European press flocked to Sweden to cover the sensational launch of Andrée’s balloon, taking many photographs as part of their coverage.
After the team had embarked on their journey, it had been young Strindberg’s responsibility to map the area from above using a highly specialized cartographic camera. Once they were grounded, however, Strindberg used his camera to document the harrowing trek the men made across the ice in their attempt to return to civilization.
Strindberg was a skilled amateur photographer, and had even won a photography contest before leaving on the expedition. Many of the nearly 200 photos he took of their journey have excellent compostions, and capture chilling moments. In 2004, Tyrone Martinsson published an article including digitally enhanced versions of some of Strindberg’s images.
I was also very lucky to have discovered the Facebook page of the Grenna Museum in Grenna, Sweden, where many of the artifacts of Andrée’s expedition are kept. Their page on Facebook includes several photographs of their collection, including many items significant to Andrée’s story.
You can read my story about Andrée’s adventure in my new minicomic, Unfortunate Mishaps in Aviation History – now available for only $2 in my Etsy shop!