IN January 2015 Jack Lowe began his attempt to visit all 238 stations on the RNLI network to photograph them using Wet Plate Collodion, a Victorian process that creates stunning images on glass.
Now he is visiting Northern Ireland for the first time, travelling in his mobile darkroom, and hopes to visit all 10 RNLI lifeboat stations during September, starting with Red Bay in Cushendall.
Other stations in this trip include Portrush, Enniskillen, Carrybridge, Newcastle, Kilkeel, Portaferry, Donaghadee, Bangor and Larne. He also plans to visit Portpatrick and Stranraer in Scotland on his way home.
Jack, who lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, will be on the road for around four weeks and you can follow his journey on the Mission Map on his website, as well as through his social media channels.
Jack says he has loved the RNLI since he was a little boy. He became a member of Storm Force, the charity’s club for children, aged 10 – a couple of years after he picked up his first camera.
In 2015, he began an epic odyssey to bring those two passions together: The Lifeboat Station Project. Estimated to finish in 2022, the eight-year mission will see Jack visiting every single RNLI lifeboat station in Ireland and the UK to photograph the volunteer crews on glass.
Once his latest trip is complete, the number of lifeboat stations he has yet to visit will be down to double figures for the first time.
When finished, The Lifeboat Station Project will be the very first time every station on the RNLI network been documented as one complete body of work. It is also one of the biggest photographic projects ever undertaken.
Jack travels in ‘Neena’, a decommissioned NHS ambulance purchased on eBay, which he converted into a mobile darkroom.
As he journeys around the coast, Jack shares the ups and downs of his mission on social media. He makes videos and sound recordings, enabling his followers to get a real sense of what life is like within lifeboat communities.
In September 2018, Jack reached a key milestone at Dover lifeboat station: the half way point of his journey.
Getting to that landmark moment had taken around 1,500 glass plates, 120 litres of developer and 45 litres of collodion. Jack had also driven some 28,000 miles, the equivalent of more than once round the world!
He and ‘Neena’ have also taken to the water, travelling by ferry to some of the furthest outposts of the RNLI, including Aith in Shetland, the most northerly station, and St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.
The latter was especially nerve-wracking journey for Neena, who had to be winched onto the cargo deck of a freighter.
In the meantime, Jack’s epic Project has garnered increasing amounts of interest.
He has been featured on The One Show, on Countryfile and regularly appeared in the national press.
He has gathered well over 30,000 followers on social media, and seen his work exhibited at the National Library of Wales, The Perth Museum and The Great North Museum.
He’s also made portraits of the RNLI’s former Chief Executive Paul Boissier and its Chairman Stuart Popham, and given talks at venues as diverse as the Apple Store in Covent Garden and The Highland Council in Inverness.
His work was also shown in a ground-breaking RNLI photography exhibition entitled ‘The Calm Before the Storm’ which was hosted by Poole Museum in 2019.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. After Jack had completed his 100th station in Valentia in Ireland, he revealed to his social media followers that he was struggling to keep going. His struggles were physical, emotional and financial – as the project is largely self-funded.
Since then, he has discovered the crowd-funding platform Patreon that allows people to support him by contributing a monthly amount, starting from a few pounds a month. This funding has allowed him to continue his work on a more secure financial footing.
Jack said: “Ultimately, I’m honoured beyond words to be making this archive. It’s a privilege spending time with so many lifeboat volunteers, preserving their bravery and devotion for future generations.
“This journey is unprecedented in so many ways. The further I travel, the deeper the body of work becomes on just about every level and in ways that I could never have foreseen or imagined.
“When looking at a freshly-made crew portrait, a lifeboat volunteer once said to me, ‘We look like those heroes of old’. I replied, ‘That’s because you are the same people.’ The project closes the circle of photographic history and gives these unsung heroes a fresh spring in their step and a sense of renewed pride.”
When Jack visits a lifeboat station, he makes the portraits using a camera made in 1905, and then develops the images in his mobile darkroom. The lifeboat crews can step into the ambulance and watch as their portraits appear on the glass plates – an experience Jack says they find fascinating, and sometimes very moving.
But Jack doesn’t just focus on the lifeboat crews: his work often takes in the station mechanics, the shore crews, and other volunteers vital to station life.
Jack began drawing up plans for the project over two years before it began. He says he has always had an interest in the history of photography: “The word photography means drawing with light and that is how I think about it still. I adore photography in this very raw, basic form — light falling on chemicals. It really is magical – the final image is always a surprise, even to me.”
He adds: “There’s a small global community of people interested in using these old techniques. Everyone works in their own way – and you’re always learning as you go along. The chemicals are the original formulae from the 1800s. It took me a long time to figure out the logistics of transporting and storing glass plates. I have a box made for each station that holds ten sheets of 12×10 inch glass. Then when I get them back to Newcastle I scan them, varnish them and then place them into storage.”
Jack, grandson of Dad’s Army actor Arthur Lowe, also an avid RNLI supporter, added: “My early childhood was spent on a Victorian schooner in Ramsgate harbour and on the Thames. My Dad is an experienced seafarer and introduced me to the wonders of lifeboats – these incredible, powerful pieces of kit designed for heroic, lifesaving missions on stormy seas.
“From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be a photographer and lifeboat volunteer when I grew up. Now I’m following my heart and uniting the two dreams. I’m using a photographic technique developed in the 1850s, around the time that the RNLI was incorporated under Royal Charter. The photographs are made directly onto glass plates known as ‘Ambrotypes’.”
Jack is now well into the second half of the project and looking forward to making new work that continues to shine a light on the selfless volunteers of the RNLI.
Follow Jack’s RNLI photographic mission on Instagram (@lordlowe), Facebook (fb.com/LifeboatStationProject), on Twitter (@ProjectLifeboat) or on the Project’s dedicated site (http://lifeboatstationproject.com).