State-of-the-Art RNLI Crew Meets 160 Year Old Photography

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Verity stood baking in the summer heat at the end of the Ilfracombe’s harbour wall; as the temperatures soared, I’m sure I spied beads of sweat rolling down her controversial form.

Weather-wise, I’d taken a risk pointing the Project so far south in June. However, I simply couldn’t resist the invitation from Suzie, the station’s LPO (Lifeboat Press Officer).

They’d just taken delivery of RNLB Barry and Peggy High Foundation (13-09), the very latest Shannon Class lifeboat — an impressive, bold addition for any lifeboat station and a symbolic statement of the RNLI’s future.

The thought of a crew photograph somehow incorporating this striking vessel amidst a classic seaside town — and to be invited to the naming ceremony the next day — meant that I couldn’t say no…

About to launch after the naming ceremony, complete with formal attire and bunting…


Why is it a risk to travel south with the Project in the summer?

Put simply, heat is the enemy of Wet Plate Collodion, the 160 year old photographic process that I use.

The nominal optimum working range is 15-24ºC. Beyond that range, things soon get tricky for collodionists if they don’t adapt their technique to suit the conditions.

The first true test outside that temperature range came at Sheringham back in January, working at around -3ºC.

In all honesty, it’s quite straight forward to adapt to cold temperatures but we were firmly looking down the barrel of +30ºC in Ilfracombe.

In this kind of heat, the process rapidly becomes unpredictable if procedures aren’t rigorously controlled and monitored. Let’s not forget that it can also tricky for humans to work in that kind of heat, right?


I’d never seen such excited hustle and bustle at a lifeboat station: Polishing, tea-making, sweeping, hosing down, pointing, directing, engines, manoeuvring…it was all going on.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe

The next day, you see, was the lifeboat’s naming ceremony — a fine nautical occasion to which we were invited.

However, beforehand, there was work to be done from both sides; the crew needed to prepare the station and we needed to make our photographs.


All began well, recording the stunning view from the boathouse on 12×10 inch glass.

I managed to incorporate the launch ramp, the cliffs of the bay and Damien Hirst’s Verity within the composition — a photograph encapsulating this classic coastal town.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
View from the RNLI Boathouse, Ilfracombe, Devon, 25th June 2015, 12×10 inch Ambrotype

Things did’t quite so smoothly when it came to making Andrew Bengey’s portrait, the Ilfracombe Coxswain.

It was agreed that I could make the photograph on the threshold of the boathouse, the spanking new Shannon Class lifeboat looming over his shoulder.

We’d have to be swift, though, as the shore crew would wait for us before pushing the boat out; they could then give the boathouse a good scrub down ahead of the next day’s ceremony.

An hour later, we still hadn’t made a plate with which I was happy. The sunshine was beating down harder and the crew really needed to get their preparations underway.

Like many a Coxswain before him, Andrew was being incredibly patient and understanding, ultimately enabling me to get it right.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Andrew Bengey, Ilfracombe RNLI Coxswain, 25th June 2015, 12×10 inch Ambrotype

In the meantime, I’d somehow placed my focussing screen — a vital piece of equipment — in a really strange and silly spot.

As the crew mustered and engines fired up, it slipped and smashed to pieces in the hurry to move out of the way; the very first accident of the Project had occurred.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe

I guess heat and stress can do that to a man.

Ordinarily, perhaps it wouldn’t be too much of a problem with a little time on our side but the boat wasn’t just being pushed out to clean the boathouse, you see, it was also being pushed out for the main reason I’d made this huge journey — to make the crew photograph moments later…


As I looked at Andrew’s portrait slooshing in the water — taking in not only what had just happened but what I now needed to do — it was time for cool heads and clarity of thought.

Duncan was his usual brilliant self, on the phone to a glazer before I knew it, trying to work out a solution. Thoughts crossed our minds of greaseproof paper to cobble a make-shift screen but, then, I remembered! Buried in the depths of Neena, I had the original 110 year old screen.

So, out it came to save the day and we got on with the task in hand.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe

Various things were going through my mind, not least wishing that this old piece of equipment had exactly the some focal plane as my newer plate holder. There simply wasn’t time to test it.

Thankfully, those wishes were granted and I went on to make a crew photograph with which I’m immensely proud.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Ilfracombe RNLI Crew, 25th June 2015, 12×10 inch Ambrotype

To me, this photograph epitomises many of my hopes and dreams for the Project.

It depicts 27 proud RNLI volunteers who have all willingly given their time to help create a unique, up-to-the minute record of their cutting edge lifeboat station.

In those moments, state-of-the-art boat and crew came face-to-face with the birth of photography.

I’d like to think that in 100 years’ time, photographs like this — along with the others that feature in the Galleries — will be viewed as an incredibly special slice of RNLI and maritime history.


Remember, just 50 limited edition prints from each of the Ilfracombe plates are now available on the Devon page:



As I prepare Mission No.6 to Poole, Penlee and beyond, your support is as vital as ever to help the Project succeed…

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 like to thank the crew and staff at Ilfracombe Lifeboat Station for being so generous, patient and accommodating.

Special thanks to Andrew Bengey and Suzie Tubby.

My deepest gratitude also lies with an old friend, Duncan Davis, now known affectionately on Instagram as #DapperDuncan.

He only came to help for a couple of days in Ilfracombe but ended up staying for nine in total, finally finding an escape route at Portishead.

Duncan could often be heard telling people, “I only popped out for a paper…”

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Duncan working hard at Ilfracombe…

1 Comment

  1. Stunning images Jack, this post illustrates the complexities of using the wet plate technique. Love the tinkering with sound, such a brilliant historic reference. All the best for your forthcoming trip, Jane and Rob

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