The Glass That Tumbled

Who’d have thought that one logistical train of thought and a letter would lead to so many stories and experiences…


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe


Making photographic glass plates as they used to in the 1800s requires a lot of forethought and planning at the best of times.

Whenever I make photographs with this old process, I need darkroom facilities close-to-hand. As many of you will already know, those facilities take the form of Neena. Until 2012, she was an NHS emergency ambulance but now she is my mobile darkroom.

So far, I’ve been able to travel with her on ferries when making work on remote islands. However, St. Mary’s — the only lifeboat station on the Isles of Scilly — would always present very specific challenges.

These remote islands are situated in the Atlantic Ocean some 28 nautical miles south west of Land’s End. Nearly everything that’s been shipped to the islands in recent decades (including food, construction materials and vehicles) has travelled on Gry Maritha, an old Norwegian freighter operated by The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company.

Discussions with the company first began in 2015 ahead of my first trip to Cornwall with the Project. We couldn’t quite make it happen at the time but when I made contact again in February, a space was made for us by the ever helpful Penzance Quay Manager, Neil Harvey.

He was determined to get us across and, as you can see below, his determination won through!


 

All sitting comfortably? Can’t remember the last time my heart was in my mouth quite as much as this! We sail at 1600hrs…

Posted by The Lifeboat Station Project on Monday, March 13, 2017


Of course, we carefully stored the glass plates we’d made in the preceding weeks ahead of this extreme manoeuvre, a lift that would need to happen four times over the course of our visit to St. Mary’s.

We would simply travel with the twenty sheets of glass we needed at this remote island location.

For the next two days, we had an incredible time and made a beautiful set of photographs. Then it was time to make the return journey…


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Behind-the-scenes making the St. Mary’s RNLI crew portrait…

The freighter had been loaded. It was time for us to climb aboard.

The gangway was positioned a little awkwardly. A chap called Jon was waiting to help as I stepped forward carrying the first day’s box of glass plates.

Jon reached up, offering to take the box from my hands.

In those moments, I was faced with a social quandary. I was very conscious that, understandably, we weren’t entirely welcome aboard the ship. The Gry Maritha is a freighter after all, not a passenger ferry.

With that in mind, I didn’t want to insult a man who had handled cargo for many a moon. Yet, as you can imagine, the plates are so precious.

However, in the commotion, I went ahead and passed the box to Jon.

All good so far.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Jon Castle, the gentleman at the centre of one of the biggest heart-in-mouth moments on the journey so far…

Stepping onto the deck, there was a lot of hustle and bustle. The crane was being stowed as the final pieces of freight were lashed down by the crew. The ship was just about ready for her passage back to the mainland.

Hen was next in line to climb aboard carrying the box of photographs from the second day.

Amidst the hubbub, I didn’t hear him calling for me to take the box from his hands. So, like me, he handed them to Jon.

On receiving them from Hen, Jon began making the turn to hand them to me. At this point, one of my worst fears came to life in slow motion before all our eyes.

Inexplicably, the box left Jon’s grasp in the most violent manner. It crashed to the deck, rolling several times across the hard green metal. The box tumbled corner-to-corner before finally coming to a halt against an upright.

A hush descended across the deck. Everyone stopped what they were doing, trying to digest what had just happened.

A sick empty feeling of disbelief took over, the prospect of half our work on the Isles of Scilly destroyed.

Jon winced and put his head in his hands. “What’s in there?” he asked with trepidation.

Several of us replied quietly in unison, “Glass.”

A few moments passed as I mustered the emotional strength to walk across to the dented, split box and examine the contents.

I unhooked the catch and lifted the lid. I could barely look.

Then a rush of huge relief and amazement on finding that every single plate was unscathed. Immaculate! Perfect!


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Lying on the deck as we set sail, absorbing what had just happened…

It was miraculous really. After two years working on the road, this and been the first true test of our plate boxes and, ultimately, testament to the quality of Mark Voce’s effective design and construction.

Once some time had passed and the ship was underway, Jon kindly came down from the bridge to apologise.

We had a great chat as the freighter steamed across the calm, twinkling ocean. On  parting note, he allowed me to take his photograph, saying it was “the least he could do” after such a disturbing event.


BUT WHO IS JON…?

I thought Jon was a regular crew member, a deck hand.

On arrival in Penzance — with Neena safely back on terra firma after her fourth and final lift — Neil asked how it had all gone. I told him what had happened just a few hours earlier in St. Mary’s.

He shook his head in disbelief not only at what he heard but also at how I referred to Jon.

“He’s not a deck hand, Jack, he’s a captain!

Furthermore, he was one of the captains of the famous Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior!

Credit: Greenpeace/Steve Morgan

Imagine — we would not have met this legend of the high seas and had a wonderful chat if he hadn’t dropped our precious glass plates. As ever, our true reward is the story to tell…


THE GLASS PLATES THAT SURVIVED A TUMBLE


Here are three of the glass plates that survived, photographs that I wouldn’t be able to show you if they’d smashed!

Just 50 prints are made from each glass plate, all made, signed, numbered and embossed by Jack Lowe. You can view the full set and order prints using the links below or pay a visit to The LSP Shop to see what else is on offer:

The LSP Shop


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
St. Mary’s RNLI Boathouse — click to order prints

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
St. Mary’s RNLI Boathouse View, Isles of Scilly — click to order prints

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Phil Woodcock, St. Mary’s RNLI Coxswain/Mechanic — click to order prints

VIEW THE FULL SET


NEW SHORT FILM BY SCHOOLHOUSE DIGITAL



NOTE TO COLLECTORS, MUSEUMS and GALLERIES

Please contact me to discuss acquiring the photographs for your collections.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
St. Mary’s RNLI Crew, Isles of Scilly

RNLI PRESS RELEASE


THANK YOU


A big thank you to The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company for putting up with us and for getting us there and back — intact!

And, of course, huge thanks to the St. Mary’s RNLI lifeboat volunteers for hosting us so warmly.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
A special mention and thank you to my old friend Ian ‘Hen’ Henderson who’s helped me out on so much of the journey, not least the Isles of Scilly.

If you’ve been following the story here, on Facebook and on Instagram for a while, you’ll have got to know me a little bit and gained insight into what it takes to make these photographs.

It ain’t always easy, that’s for sure — here’s a timely reminder of the leap of faith I had to take to get it all underway:


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Click to read “All or Nothing”

4 MINUTE READ: ALL OR NOTHING

SUPPORT THE PROJECT

6 Comments

  1. A great story and I’m really pleased that the images survived. It reminded me of Shackleton’s ill fated Antarctic expedition over 100yrs ago when his ship, the Endurance, was trapped and eventually crushed by pack ice. Frank Hurley. the ships photographer had taken 560 glass negatives. the whole crew had to drag what they need to survive over miles of pack-ice to Elephant Island before Shackleton in a makeshift lifeboat made it to South Georgia and brought a rescue ship to them months later. Such was the importance that Shackleton regarded these images, he decided the extra weight and bulk of the plates was worth risking the already perilous lives of the expedition party. Hurley had to choose only 160 plates to take with them of which 68 survived with the amazing images he captured a testament to the skill and the bravery of the men.

    • Indeed, Paul. Not only that but, as I understand it, Shackleton then ordered Hurley to destroy the remainder so as to remove temptation to ‘sneak’ some extra ones back in. It’s often cited as one of the great examples of leadership! Glad you enjoyed my story too… Best wishes, Jack

  2. I’ve just come across this remarkable project, the images are truly beautiful, I’m going to spend the next few days reading and digesting your truly inspirational journey and vision. Also pass on my admiration to your family for all the support they have given you

  3. I should think your heart was in your mouth five times on that trip: once when you opened the box containing the glass, and four times when Neena was craned on and off the ship. You certainly are one to put yourself out there!

    • …and then the next day when the camera blew over in a gust of wind whilst working at Newquay Airport. Ugh!

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