Capturing All 238 RNLI Stations Using Victorian Photography and an Ambulance
Photographer Jack Lowe 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.
Now he’s brought his two passions together in a unique undertaking — The Lifeboat Station Project.
The Project, which began in January 2015, will see Jack visiting all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations in the UK and Republic of Ireland, photographing the view from each station along with the crew and Coxswain/Senior Helm using Wet Plate Collodion, a Victorian process that allows him to record stunning images on glass.
Jack, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, travels in Neena — his decommissioned NHS ambulance purchased on eBay and converted into a mobile darkroom.
The ambitious five-year odyssey is one of the biggest photographic projects ever undertaken and, when finished, will be the first complete photographic record of every single lifeboat station on the RNLI network.
Jack looks set to reach the half-way point in late 2017 – and 2017 will also include the Project’s first visit to Ireland.
Jack, grandson of Dad’s Army actor Arthur Lowe, also an avid RNLI supporter, explains: “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’.”
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 volunteer lifeboat crew members are able to 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.
In its first two years, The Lifeboat Station Project has already attracted national media attention, with Jack appearing in everything from the BBC Countryfile programme to The Times newspaper. It’s also proved extremely popular on social media, with over 22,500 followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – and that number increases daily.
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 12x10 inch glass. Then when I get them back to Newcastle I scan them, varnish them and then place them into storage.”
It’s a real labour of love — even for a dedicated RNLI fan — but Jack always looks forward to his next station visit.
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).
Notes to Editors
An RNLI film about the Project is here:
Media are welcome to film/ interview Jack Lowe. Contact RNLI Public Relations on firstname.lastname@example.org/ 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.