Jack Lowe has set himself a challenge to document every RNLI post around the UK coastline using a Victorian method of photography called Wet Plate Collodion Photography. He has been driving around in an old ambulance converted into a mobile darkroom. Jack talked to us about this fascinating project and the challenges he faces along the way.
Tell us about yourself and this lifeboat project.
I’ve been a photographer since I was about eight years old. From that age, I knew that I wanted to be a professional photographer. I used to shoot film in an old Kodak Instamatic camera, which my Grandmother gave to me. So, she’s to blame! I used to persuade her or my Mum to take me along to the local chemist to get it processed and printed. When I was twelve years old, I converted my bedroom into a darkroom and spent several years teaching myself how to print. I’d take photographs of my peers at school on Sports Day and sell prints to them. Then, university followed by three years assisting a top advertising photographer in London before breaking out on my own.
I spent the first few years of my life growing up on a boat and I’ve loved lifeboats from an early age — also around eight years old, in fact, when I joined the RNLI junior membership club (the same time that I got into photography). I became hooked as soon as I laid eyes upon the shipyard in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, which made Atlantic 21 lifeboats at the time. So, after working for eighteen years with photographic assisting, digital retouching and printing, I’d reached a point in my life where I had to honestly answer a question: “Do I want to spend the rest of my working days in a studio in front of computers?” The answer to that was an emphatic, “No!” So, I set about thinking about what I would really like to do and I came up with The Lifeboat Station Project, a combination of my love of photography, the sea and the RNLI.
At each station, I’m making a minimum of three photographs:
• The view from each boathouse of the waters protected by the station;
• A portrait of the Coxswain or Senior Helmsman;
• A group portrait of the crew.
There is also a new dimension to the project which is making portraits of the female volunteers at the RNLI. So, for the next few years it’s now my mission to document all 237 RNLI lifeboat stations in Britain & Ireland using Victorian methods; to engage and unite the RNLI community with an unprecedented body of photographs.
Tell us about the Collodion Wet Plate Process and the techniques you use.
Wet Plate Collodion is a Victorian process that was in common use from the 1850s until the late 1880s. The photographs are usually made directly onto metal or glass. A positive image fixed onto metal is known as a Tintype; a positive image fixed onto glass, just like the 10×12 inch plates I make on the Project, is called an Ambrotype.
There are many steps in the process that must be executed well in order to record a satisfactory photograph. Patience and dedication are the key to mastering so many of the skills involved. I work from my decommissioned NHS emergency ambulance, which I’ve converted into my mobile darkroom. Remember, with wet plate, you need darkroom facilities close to hand as the process must be completed within a 10/15 minute window while the plate is wet. If the emulsion dries, no image will be recorded on the plate. The ambulance is full of all the paraphernalia I need to make my plates from the glass itself, to the chemicals, water and drying racks. The camera I use on the Project is a 110 year old 10×12 inch Thornton Pickard (brass-bound mahogany). I also have a smaller half plate camera. Coincidentally, it’s the same age and make as the 10×12 inch.
What made you want to document the RNLI posts using old techniques?
I didn’t want to just leap into the vast sea of digital photography; I wanted to make photographs again just like when I was a boy and, moreover, to combine that with a really good idea. However, I also didn’t want a two-stage process of film and printing. I wanted the photograph to be unique — in essence, a sculpture — which is very unusual in the medium. I’ve always had a keen interest in the history of photography, so I knew that left one process — Wet Plate Collodion. There are two more vital facets that Wet Plate Collodion brings to the Project: Participation and engagement. The lifeboat men and women are able to step into my mobile darkroom and witness the magical, beautiful process for themselves. As a result, they leave the station feeling that they’ve been a part of something special, a part of history and enjoyed a day that will live long in their memories. That, for me, is the most wonderful aspect to using an old technique in producing the Project’s photographs.
What is the most challenging part of this process?
It can be an emotional roller-coaster! There are SO many variables and logistics to harmonize but, as you put in the flying hours, it becomes second nature. In short, I’d say the most challenging facet of wet plate is to find and maintain the rhythm of the process. However, when I do find that very specific rhythm, it’s tremendously satisfying and rewarding.
Where do you see this project progressing in the next few years?
For this Project, the only way is up. News is travelling fast at the moment and there are some big things just around the corner. Over the next few years, as more and more photographs are made around the coastline, I can only see that its popularity will keep growing. Gradually, I’ll also work towards publishing a multi-volume book (one for each region) and then, ultimately, a huge exhibition of all the plates. The boathouse views will be placed geographically around the exhibition space. Therefore, the sensation for the audience will be that they’re looking around the entire coastline of the British Isles. See the Mission Map for more details.
Never one to think small, I would love that venue to be the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, The National Maritime Museum or Somerset House. . A venue large enough to accommodate an RNLI All Weather Lifeboat as a centerpiece along with Neena (my ambulance) so that people can see where the photographs were made.