The RNLI Lifeboat Station Project reaches Shetland on the Longest Day
Jack Lowe’s epic photographic mission to capture all 237 lifeboat stations using a Victorian camera has reached the most northerly station on the RNLI network.
At 60 degrees north, Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. At midsummer it hardly gets dark, so Jack was able to take a photograph late at night, despite using a photographic process developed in the 1850s – one that does not include flash! In the Shetland and Orkney, the few hours between sunset and sunrise are a time of prolonged dusk, known as the ‘simmer dim’.
Jack uses a 111-year-old 10x12-inch camera made of brass-bound mahogany to capture images on glass. The process of making the photographs – known as wet plate collodion – is even older, dating from the mid-19th century. The process is complicated and little-known, so before setting out on his mission, Jack had to spend a couple of years teaching himself how to do it.
The ambitious project officially began in January 2015 and is likely to take three to five years to complete. Jack, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, travels in 'Neena' — a decommissioned NHS ambulance, which doubles up as a mobile darkroom.
Before visiting Aith, he photographed the Kirkwall and Longhope stations on Orkney, bringing his total of stations visited so far to 62 – that’s over a quarter of all RNLI stations.
John Robertson, Aith station mechanic, said: “It’s been a thoroughly interesting visit – it’s amazing to see how he makes the photographs and the attention to detail that goes into it.”
This latest stage of Jack’s epic mission saw him visit Wick and Thurso on the Scottish mainland, Stromness, Longhope, Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick and Aith in Shetland. He and Neena the ambulance had to travel by ferry to reach these far northern outposts of the RNLI network.
Jack, said: “I’ve been looking forward to visiting these stations ever since conceiving the idea for the Lifeboat Station Project. I had high expectations but little could have prepared for the incredible experiences that would unfold and the amazing people I would meet.
“I’ve felt so welcomed at every station I’ve been to and now am in the wonderful position of having lots of invitations to return in the future. The people I’ve met have been warm, generous and hospitable – and that warmth and generosity is reflected in the photographs we’ve made over the last few weeks. I can’t wait to share them online.”
“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 wonderful, powerful pieces of kit designed for heroic, lifesaving missions on stormy seas.”
Jack, grandson of Dad’s Army actor Arthur Lowe, also an avid RNLI supporter, said: “From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be either a photographer or a lifeboat crew member when I grew up. Now I’m following my heart and uniting the two dreams.
“The Project now enjoys an incredible extra dimension as everyone is so involved and engaged with it – the coxswain and crew can step into the ambulance and watch a portrait of themselves developing. They are entranced, often rendered speechless and sometimes moved to tears!”
Jack 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 10x12” glass. Then when I get them back to Newcastle I scan them, varnish them and then place them into storage.”
Traditionally, the summer solstice has always been a time of celebration. For the Norse pagans it marked the height of the sun’s power, and was associated with Baldur, the God of light. In more recent times, large bonfires would be lit on hills around Orkney and Shetland to mark the event. Nowadays, Shetland plays host to the Simmer Dim Rally, which sees hundreds of bikers descend on the island to celebrate the solstice.
Follow Jack’s RNLI photographic mission on Facebook (fb.com/LifeboatStationProject), on Instagram (@lordlowe), on Twitter (@ProjectLifeboat) or on the Project’s dedicated site ( lifeboatstationproject.com).
Notes to Editors:
Attached are pictures of RNLI Aith crew.
Media are welcome to film or interview Jack Lowe. Contact the RNLI Press Office email@example.com, 01202 336789.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.