For Jack Lowe, inspiration came from the remarkable work done by the RNLI all around the UK, but the question was: how to represent their courage and fortitude? The answer came on a glass plate. Katherine Anker reports.
'A long-time admirer of the RNLI, Jack decided to travel to every single lifeboat station in the country, using a brassbound mahogany Thornton Pickard camera from 1905.'-- Thurso lifeboat
With thousands of miles of coastline, Britain has always relied heavily on the sea and, consequently, on its rescue service. In fact, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution gets an average of 23 call-outs a day, so there's probably a lifeboat out on rescue at the very moment you're reading this page. Amazingly, the 237 lifeboat stations, dotted around the coast from Cornwall to the Shetland Islands, are all manned by dedicated volunteers who brave the roughest of seas to save lives.
In 2014, photographer Jack Lowe embarked on a mammoth project that has captured the imagination of the British public and the attention of many of the major UK newspapers. A long-time admirer of the RNLI, Jack decided to travel to every single lifeboat station in the country, using a brass-bound mahogany Thornton Pickard camera from 1905 to capture striking, almost holographic glass plate portraits of the lifeboat volunteers. The resulting images -- set to be exhibited at a prominent, maritime location in 2020 -- will be geographically placed around the exhibition space so you can stand in the middle and look toward the 'coast' in all directions.
'I was at a time in my life when I knew I needed a new challenge, and I was trying to decide what to do next,' says Jack, who used to run a fine art printing and retouching business. Initially, the project was supposed to be digital, but a few tests with the Victorian medium of wet plate collodion, where an image is developed on a glass plate while still wet, made Jack realise the potential for creating something truly unique. 'I knew I wanted a process that didn't require too many steps, so I had to explore photography further and go back in time.
With wet plate collodion you expose your surface, develop it, fix it and that's it.' Jack also considered tintypes, which are produced in the same way, but realised that his images would always be back-to-front. 'Glass images you can simply turn around, but with a metal plate you can't see the image from the back, so the RNLI logo would always be back to front. The lifeboat stations mean a lot to people -- many would be upset at seeing the logo depicted the wrong way round.'
'I knew I wanted a process that didn't require too many steps, so I had to explore photography further and go back in time.'
Having decided on a medium, Jack realised that he would need a mobile darkroom to fulfill his vision. 'You can't get the glass plates ready before you go out -- you have to prepare each plate when you're ready to take the picture. Then you develop, stop and fix it. It's all done in 10-15 minutes.'
But he didn't just want any old van to do it in. 'You know how in Wes Anderson movies there is always a good story, some kind of map of a journey, and an interesting mode of transportation? I knew I needed these three things for my project,' says Jack. 'The VW transporters that surfers use are dull as dishwater, so I looked on eBay and there Neena was. You know how it is when you see something and you just know it's right? I knew Neena was going to be in my life.'
Neena is a decommissioned NHS ambulance, which the previous owners were hoping to turn into a camper van. They never got around to doing it and instead put her up for sale on eBay, where Jack determined her new destiny. 'In Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou is very fond of his vehicle, Belafonte. Neena is my Belafonte,' he says. He only made a few changes -- an ambulance is sort of a lab already -- but the new Neena instantly became the darling of Jack's audience online and on the road. 'People love Neena -- I get people waving at me on the motorway because they recognise her. I'm selling a mug with a picture of Neena on it on my website, and it's selling really well.'
So far, Jack has photographed 72 of the 237 lifeboat stations. At each station, he takes three pictures; the view from the boathouse, a portrait of the coxswain or senior helm and a picture of the crew. Lately, he has also started portraying the women of the RNLI. Everywhere he goes, he finds that the process of preparing, shooting and developing his glass plates makes people engage with his project. 'For the first hour, I don't even touch the camera. I get to know people, have a chat. People can be nervous and they want to get it right. It's a collaboration -- it's not me going in and taking a picture, we're making it together.'
'You know how it is when you see something and you just know it's right? I knew Neena was going to be in my life.'
The exposure lasts between five and 10 'elephants' -- Jack removes the lens cap and counts out loud, 'one elephant, two elephants, and so on. Before he shoots, he does a practice run so people get an idea of what it feels like to stand still for the required amount of elephants, and to notice how they're breathing in that time. 'I tell people that their mood will come through in their eyes -- if you want to look happy, think happy thoughts and it will come across. Usually the second plate turns out well -- that's equivalent to pressing the shutter twice.'
The 10 x 12 wet plates are sensitive to ultraviolet light, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum to yellow and red colours, so Jack has had to develop a wet-plate-way-of-seeing. 'Lifeboat people wear yellow, and lifeboats are orange, so they come out very dark. If you photograph silvery hair against an orange lifeboat, the orange will go black and the hair will go bright, making for great contrast in the picture, whereas you wouldn't get that much contrast from those colours in a regular photograph.'
Sometimes, people are moved to tears when they see the final result emerging from the chemical solutions in the mobile lab. 'The images have an amazing, holographic feel, it can be quite moving to see. People walk away feeling like they've been part of something important and historical.' And it's not just the subjects who take something away from the experience. 'The Lifeboat Station Project has shown me the great core of humanity in an organisation where people volunteer to come out and help,' says Jack. 'And at a time of Trump and with so many things going on in the world, it shows that if you don't like something, you can create something else that you're happy with. I can make my own little bubble -- my own Wes Anderson film -- and invite others to join me.'
'People can be nervous and they want to get it right. It's a collaboration -- it's not me going in and taking a picture, we're making it together.'