After my first visit in January, it was good to be back in Cromer last month.
I’d booked my favourite room overlooking the pier and, of course, the RNLI boathouse perched at the end of the classic 1901 construction. I could gaze out of that window all day long but I had photographs to make…
During that first wintery visit, I’d managed to make two photographs with which I was very happy but one in particular had escaped my grasp — a portrait of John Davies, the Cromer Coxswain.
John, believe it or not, is the eighth generation of lifeboat crewmen at Cromer.
I’ve described before that, even as a child, I’d always known of Cromer’s stature in the RNLI community — largely due to the Greatest of Lifeboatmen, Henry Blogg.
Henry, you may recall, was an incredibly long-serving and famous Coxswain, the position now held by John Davies.
On the Saturday morning that we were due to meet, the weather had turned cold again. Bitterly cold.
Before John arrived, I made a test plate on the pier to make sure the old process was working as it should…
Then it was time to set about making the portrait.
Being a Saturday morning, the station was bustling with members of the public in the viewing gallery admiring the handsome, pristine Tamar Class lifeboat — 16-07 RNLB Lester.
However, in the crew areas it was quiet with just three of us — John Davies, my friend Jonny and me.
After making the first couple of plates, things weren’t going to plan. For various reasons, the photograph just wasn’t working.
Now, the beauty of Wet Plate Collodion is that it’s really about finding a rhythm; the act of making a photograph is almost secondary.
That rhythm, however, takes time and requires the full participation and patience of all involved.
It’s the beauty of the process when everything is working well but the moment the rhythm stutters, that beauty can soon become distinctly arhythmic.
Throw a 150 metre pier into the mix — meaning 300 metres of walking between the camera and Neena* for every single plate made — and time rapidly starts to evaporate…
* My decommissioned NHS ambulance, converted into a mobile darkroom.
“ARE WE THERE YET, JACK?”
Two and a half hours into my time with John, I still hadn’t got what I wanted.
All the factors that I mentioned earlier played on my mind and I realised that I’d placed an undue amount of pressure on myself to get this photograph just right.
After all, this was the Cromer Coxswain and now I was worried I’d be wasting his time, eating into his Saturday and trying his patience (I’ve neglected to mention that John had been up since 4am crab fishing on the icy North Sea).
Each time I returned to the boathouse, John had sunk lower into his chair.
“Are we there yet, Jack?” he’d say in his broad Norfolk accent.
I’d try my best to convey optimism in my reply, “Not yet, John.”
After the fourth plate, I remember John asking me the same question again.
“Are we there yet, Jack?”
At this point I inadvertently rested my head in my hands and said, “No, John. Sorry. We’re not.”
I must confess, I didn’t know what would happen at this point as it had been a long time and John was tired.
Then, a ray of sunshine. John had clearly seen my despondency mixed with the fact that I was trying so hard to fulfil an ambition.
After a slight pause he said, “We’ll crack this, Jack. Tell me what we need to do and we’ll do it.”
From that moment, I knew for certain John was totally on side and my heart lifted.
As instructed, I told him what we needed to do; where and how he should stand; that I would take a gamble and go straight to Neena, sensitise a plate come straight back to the boathouse, setup the camera and we’d be finished before he knew it.
So, that’s what we did and, with the lifeboat looming behind in the darkness, John leaned against the huge boathouse doors at the top of the slipway.
As he looked out to sea, this was the resulting portrait we made together, a portrait with which I’m very proud:
“GOOD. VERY GOOD.”
The next morning we reconvened with fresh heads at the boathouse to make a new crew photograph. I was predictably on the receiving end of some banter from John:
“I hope this won’t take four hours like yesterday!”
That kinda thing.
It was much-deserved, of course, but I could see he had a twinkle in his eye albeit mixed with a degree of seriousness.
Against the odds, we’d somehow cobbled together a mutual understanding. So much so, that John and I organised the crew photograph together that breezy Sunday morning — a moment that I’ll never forget.
You’ll be relieved to hear, it all went very smoothly without a hitch.
The glass plate even won the approval of the man himself with these words over a cup of tea in the crew room afterwards:
“Good. Very good.”
That was more than good enough for me.
50 LIMITED EDITION PRINTS
Just 50 limited edition prints from each of the Cromer plates are now available:
I’d like to thank all those who’ve supported the Project to this point — it’s truly moving to see so many of you recognising the value in the photographs I’m making.
Remember, although the RNLI are supporting me logistically, I’m currently raising the funding under my own steam — in essence, my own form of crowdfunding.
Print sales, pre-orders and contributions keep The Lifeboat Station Project on the road:
I’d also like to thank the entire crew and staff at Cromer Lifeboat Station for being so generous, accommodating and for making me feel at home.
Special thanks to John Davies, Audrey Smith, Richard Leeds, Rosie Syer and Paul Russell.
My deepest gratitude also lies with Jonny Kemp who ably assisted me on this second visit to Cromer and knows exactly what we had to go through to make this portrait of John. I’m glad you were there to share in the final elation, Jonny…
Cromer, I’ll be back…!
UPDATE: 21st August 2015
Yesterday, the news of John Davies’ pleasure at being featured in Riders on the Storm finally caught up with me yesterday via the RNLI grapevine — news that brought a smile to my dial…
I saw some of your lifeboat crew photos in the Independent Magazine the other month. They are really stunning pictures. It would be great to see the whole collection shown in an exhibition when the project is completed. Keep up the good work!
Thank you, Liz. I’m looking forward to putting the exhibition together in a few years’ time. Barely a day goes by when I don’t think about it!