Last week’s meeting: The Lifeboat Station Project with Jack Lowe
“Once you’ve seen one lifeboat station you’ve seen them all,” is not a phrase that Jack Lowe is ever likely to use, given that he has been visiting and photographing them for 10 years and will be continuing to do so for the next three years. Neither would he likely utter the words; “I’ll fix it in Photoshop later,” as he shoots on a 1904 vintage 12×10 inch Thornton Pickard brass-bound mahogany camera using the Wet Plate Collodion method. Jack does not take his photography lightly.
He took us on a many layered journey, unpeeling what he called “a huge coastal onion”, revealing ordinary people doing extraordinary things, a charity, the RNLI, that relies on the commitment, bravery and skills of its volunteers plus the generosity of the British public, and Jack himself.
Jack started his talk with a photo of himself as a child with a Kodak Instamatic his grandmother had bought him. His interest in photography started then. His interest in the sea came early too, as he was brought up on a boat and his grandfather, the actor Arthur Lowe, was Vice-President of the Twickenham branch of the RNLI.
Over a decade ago Jack came up with the idea of photographing every RNLI lifeboat station in the UK and Ireland – the Lifeboat Station Project. He had no commission and no financial backing but remarkably he has pulled it off. Inspired by the words of the founder of what would become the RNLI, Sir William Hillary: “With courage… nothing is impossible”, and also Yoda’s words “Do. Or do not. There is no try” Jack began what has become his life’s mission. And it’s a mission not made easy by choosing a Victorian photographic method, the wet collodion system, as his modus operandi.
To take a photo he first has to coat a meticulously clean sheet of glass with an even coating of liquid collodion, making sure that just the right amount has covered the surface, then in the dark dunk it into a solution of silver nitrate to make it light sensitive. Once this is done the glass plate is placed into a light-tight film holder. The result is a glass negative at approximately 0.5 ISO ready to be put into the back of an already composed and focused camera and, making sure the dark slide is taken out, the shutter is then fired. After firing the shutter the dark slide is put back in, the holder removed and now the race is on to develop the light sensitive glass. In the dark the glass plate is taken out, developed and fixed in chemicals, washed in water and the image is revealed, just like ‘magic’ as one of the lifeboat crew caught on video in Fleetwood said. All this developing is done in an old ambulance called Neena, which is Jack’s mobile darkroom.
Timing is crucial. Prepare the plates too soon and the ISO plummets, take too long to develop the plate and the image is lost. There were some lifeboat stations where Jack had to run up and down a pier or a cliff many times to make sure he got his plates processed in time.
So why go to all this effort? Because of the resultant engagement, it becomes a collaborative effort between the photographer and the subject, the volunteers are part of the whole process, from composing the shot to seeing the image revealed. It is no wonder that Jack is a good friend of Daniel Meadows who spoke to us last season about his Free Photographic Omnibus and his collaborative approach to photography.
Jack has three key shots he needs to take for each lifeboat station: the coxswain or helm, the entire crew, and the view from the boat house. He supplements these shots with other views. He has focussed on the women volunteers, he has done commission portraits of retiring coxswains, he has shot what appeared to be a ‘quick snap’ (it wasn’t) of lifeboat volunteers silhouetted against the sky. Jack has also taken audio tracks of volunteers talking about their experience and his project is also included in a documentary called Launch!
Funding this whole project has been difficult but Jack has come up with creative and successful ways of raising funds from merchandise – key fobs, postcards, prints, posters – and Patreon support/sponsorship. He has stepped away from Patreon, Facebook and Instagram and has successfully built his own paid membership community and built his own membership app and website.
It has not all been plain sailing, at times he has been in the pit of despair which was vividly caught on video as he was trying to do a piece to camera and kept fluffing his lines. But despite all the challenges Jack’s vision has prevailed.
It was a truly inspiring talk.