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'Some of them are moved to tears': A photographer is capturing Ireland's lifeboat crews with Victorian techniques

Jack Lowe aims to capture all 238 stations in the network – a project that will likely take five years

Lowe captured RNLI volunteers in Ilfracombe in 2015
Lowe captured RNLI volunteers in Ilfracombe in 2015
Image: Jack Lowe

USING TECHNIQUES INVENTED hundreds of years ago, a photographer is spending at least five years travelling around Ireland and the UK to capture haunting images of lifeboats and their volunteers on glass plates.

Jack Lowe from Newcastle upon Tyne has already captured 88 of the 231 Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) stations in the UK with Victorian processes, and is now in Ireland, where he captured his first station in Dunmore East on Wednesday.

He’ll travel around the country, including to Tramore, Kinsale and Castletownbere, and will finish in Valentia, Co Kerry on 30 September – his 99th lifeboat station.

The trip is his first to Ireland, and he said he was excited to see the country’s “stunning coastline”.

I’d been told there’s a welcome like no other from the Irish and I’m already experiencing it after just two days.

Victorian methods

Lowe aims to capture every station in the RNLI’s network, and he’s expected to reach the midpoint of the project in 2018.

He’s travelling in a decommissioned NHS ambulance bought online that has been converted into a mobile darkroom, where his photos, captured on a camera made in 1905, can be developed.

Source: RNLI/YouTube

He uses a process called wet plate collodion, which captures the images on glass.

The technique was developed in the 1850s, around the time that the the RNLI was incorporated under Royal Charter.

The lifeboat crew members can step into the ambulance to watch the portraits appear on the glass, something Lowe says they often find moving.

Because the process takes so much more time than digital photography, Lowe spends at least 24 hours in each station. He’ll have made a connection with the crew before the photo’s taken, making the process of being photographed more engaging and relaxing.

Dunmore East RS (1) Lowe uses a camera made in 1905 Source: Jack Lowe

But it’s the rare technique itself that’s responsible for most of the emotion. The crew is invited into the ambulance and can watch the photo slowly develop,  seeing themselves in a way they’ve never seen before, and they might associate only with their own ancestors.

Lowe says he’s been met with tears and hugs after the process:

It reveals who the person really is. It lets the soul shine through. Some of them are moved to tears.

Passion

Lowe grew up around ships thanks to his father, and is an avid lifeboat supporter, he explains:

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.

With his love of photography, he says that he is now “following my heart and uniting the two passions”.

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

It’s the physical nature of the process that led him to use the Victorian techniques. Not only does it remind him of his childhood, when he built his own darkroom and worked with physical photographs, but it makes the photos themselves more accessible: “In 50 years time you won’t need software to see them. You’ll just need your eyes.”

The project began in 2015, but planning started two years earlier.

 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.
When he returns home, he’ll scan the glass to make prints, and varnish the plates to keep an archive. His hope is that an organisation like the National Maritime Museum or the RNLI itself will be interested in the glass collection.
My dream is to have a national collection that shows the legacy of these volunteers.

Read: An Post stamp marks 50th anniversary of free secondary education >

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