POLAR PORTRAITS:The Antarctic adventures of Ernest Shackleton form part of a prestigious exhibition of polar explorer portraits - historic and contemporary - which is running in Kildare before showing in London and New York

CRANKING THE HANDLE of a cine-camera in late October, 1915, Australian Frank Hurley may not have realised that he was making photographic history. News, yes, as he took stills of a ship "rising on the crest of a great wave". That swell, which he recorded in his diary, was one of ice and the ship was in its "death agony".

The vessel was Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance which had run into pack ice in the Weddell Sea, during an expedition which hoped to make the first crossing of Antarctica. Hurley's translucent still of its "foundering" has become one of the immortal images of that adventure.

On October 27th, 1915, the "ice mill", as he called it, took on a new dynamic. He recalls how the last meal was eaten on board that evening, while "the ominous sound of giving timbers arises from below . . . our sadness is for the familiar scene from which we are being expelled. The clock is ticking on the wall as we take a final leaving of the cosy wardroom."

Earlier that day, as fellow expedition member Frank Worsley had recalled, eight emperor penguins had approached the vessel singing "what sounded like a dirge . . . "

A scale model of the Endurance and artefacts relating to Shackleton, his Quaker roots in Co Kildare and his Antarctic adventures form an exhibition which takes place in Athy Heritage Centre, Co Kildare as part of this year's eighth annual Ernest Shackleton Autumn School, which opened yesterday.

Shackleton was born in the village of Kilkea, between Castledermot and Athy, in 1874. This year, there is a particular focus on photography, as the school is due to host a prestigious international exhibition of polar explorer portraits. Entitled Face to Face, the exhibition is based on a book of the same name by Huw Lewis-Jones, curator of art at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge. The SPRI was founded in 1920 as a lasting memorial to Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his colleagues who perished on his fateful Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.

Among the SPRI's extensive collection are images taken by Scott's expedition photographer Herbert Ponting and Shackleton's photographer, Frank Hurley. Contemporary adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has described them as a "stunning visual legacy" to an heroic age of Antarctic exploration which is "so far removed from our comfortable world of satellite navigation, high-tech equipment and almost certain rescue".

A selection of 25 photos, some of which have never been made public before, includes the first polar portrait ever - a daguerreotype of Sir John Franklin, taken in 1845, shortly before he set off in the ship Erebus on the infamous Northwest Passage expedition. Interestingly, Richard Beard, who captured a photograph of Franklin, was the first British licensee for Daguerre's photographic process. Images of Irish adventurers Tom Crean, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Patrick Keohane of Cork were also chosen, and the book notes that photography had a significant influence on Shackleton's popularity at home - helping him raise money for his further adventures.

Juxtaposed with these are 25 contemporary images of men and women living and working today in the polar regions, taken by photographer Martin Hartley. The images range from Sir Ranulph Fiennes to ecological adventurer David de Rothschild to female polar guide Matty McNair. Fiennes's late wife, Ginny, polar radio operator and researcher, is also captured - an adventurer in her own right, she was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Polar Medal.

The exhibition is something of a coup for Seamus Taaffe and the Shackleton autumn school organising committee, as it travels later this year to the Explorers' Club in New York and to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Huw Lewis-Jones will speak at the autumn school, as will Kari Herbert, daughter of the late Sir Wally Herbert. Known as the "greatest polar explorer of our time" - Herbert undertook the first 3,800 mile surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean with three companions and 40 dogs during 1968/69.

His daughter is a travel writer and photographer. Her book on growing up as a young girl with the polar Inuit of north-west Greenland, entitled The Explorer's Daughter, was published in 2004. She has also just completed a new work on the women behind polar exploration, entitled The Hero's Heart.

Dr Jim McAdam of Queen's University, Belfast, will speak about Shackleton and Chile. And EC Coleman, veteran of four Arctic expeditions and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, will speak of his research into polar history. Dr Stephanie Barczewski of the Clemson University of South Carolina, will talk about her most recent publication, Antarctic Destinies, which examines how the reputations of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Shackleton have evolved.

There's much more in the three-day programme, during which two films of the successful crossing of Antarctica in 1958 by Sir Vivian Fuchs and the late Sir Edmund Hillary will be screened. The pair completed Shackleton's unfinished journey.

Significantly, another of Shackleton's "almosts" is due to be attempted this year by descendants of some of the original participants. Shackleton's great grandson, Patrick Bergel (36), and Henry Adams (33), a great grandson of Jameson Boyd Adams, Shackleton's number two on the South Pole attempt, are among those training for the reconstruction of the 1907-1908 Nimrod expedition.

They are among a group of six who are offering to take a fit member of the public with them for the last crucial 97 miles, which Shackleton and crew never completed, to the South Pole.

Exhausted and running short of supplies, Shackleton had planted Queen Alexandra's Union Jack on a bamboo pole, along with a small, brass cylinder containing some stamps, before retracing some 730 miles. "We have shot our bolt, and the tale is 88 23S 162E," the leader recorded on January 8th, 1909. But he had still beaten the previous record, then held by Sir Robert Scott, by 360 miles. A little over three years later, Norway's Roald Amundsen became the first man officially to discover the South Pole, in March 1912.

Face to Face runs in Athy Heritage Centre until November 21st. For details of the eighth annual Ernest Shackleton Autumn School, call 059-8633075 or see The book Face to Face, by Huw Lewis-Jones, is released by Polarworld on November 10th, £35.