Who’d have thought that one logistical train of thought and a letter would lead to so many stories and experiences…
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!
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 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.
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!
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!
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:
NEW SHORT FILM BY SCHOOLHOUSE DIGITAL
NOTE TO COLLECTORS, MUSEUMS and GALLERIES
Please contact me to discuss acquiring the photographs for your collections.
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.
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: