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Antarctica’s Brutal Beauty: Portraits from the Bottom of the World

Stunning photographs of glaciers and penguins — that nearly came at the price of one photographer's life

In 1964, photographer Michael Rougier accompanied an expedition to the bottom of the world, where researchers planned to retrace the steps of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary (and ill-fated) World War I-era Antarctic expedition. By the time LIFE magazine published his pictures in May 1965, the focus of the story had narrowed considerably — namely, Rougier’s photos appeared in an article about American and Russian scientists studying the navigational prowess of Adélie penguins. Along the way, he made countless pictures of the charming creatures and their cousins — Emperor penguins, for example — in their brutal, gorgeous natural habitat. Not incidentally, he also almost lost his life.

Just another assignment for a photojournalist whose talent was matched only by his versatility.

Born in England in June 1925, Rougier shot for LIFE for a quarter century, covering the Korean War, the Boy Scouts, drug-addled Japanese teens, the 1956 Hungarian revolution, horse racing and myriad other subjects. The pictures he made in Antarctica in 1964, meanwhile, remain among his most impressive: it’s hard to think of another photographer who, in black and white, could so neatly capture both the forbidding beauty of the great southern continent and the endearing quirkiness of its most famous residents.

At one point during the assignment, however, things went terribly wrong for Rougier, as he lost his footing and went sliding — for close to half a mile, out of control — down the side of a glacier. As his daughter Karen recently told LIFE.com, her dad managed to save himself. Barely.

“As a last gasp,” Karen Rougier says, “he threw his pick out to grab the ice, and that’s what kept him from sliding right off the edge of the glacier.”

Rougier was badly hurt in the accident, but after recovering he went on to complete many more assignments, for LIFE and other publications. Michael Rougier died just two years ago, in January 2012. A small peak near where he almost lost his life, east of Antarctica’s LaPrade Valley, was named Rougier Hill in tribute to him.

Life Magazine photographer Michael Rougier in Antarctica 1964


Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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