If you head to Poole Museum before 22nd April, you’ll find my contribution to the Calm Before the Storm exhibition adorning the walls of Gallery 2.
53 prints from my original glass plates are on display — 44 of them take you on a coastal journey around the compass, from the most northerly station on Shetland to the most westerly in Ireland.
It took over 5000 miles to create the remaining nine prints but more on that shortly…
Other items include paraphernalia from my journey, the camera I used to teach myself the wet plate collodion process and even the apron that I wore when photographing the 119 lifeboat stations I visited in the first half of the project.
You’ll see that the apron is heavily stained with silver nitrate, battered and bruised from the rigours of working with such a demanding old process.
Two of my original glass plates are the exhibition’s jewel in the crown — Lucy Lavers and the Buckie lifeboat volunteers sparkle in their handsome display cabinet.
Remember, the handmade photographs aren’t copies. They are the pieces of glass that were in the back of the camera at their respective locations.
THE 5000 MILE ARTWORK: LIFEBOAT SLIPWAYS 2015-2018
The other prints I’d like to share with you take us on a slightly different journey.
They’re on the far wall at the end of the gallery forming a brand new standalone artwork called Lifeboat Slipways 2015-2018 — nine individually framed slipway prints in a grid measuring approximately 5×4 feet.
Before we go any further, let’s rewind the clock to 15th January 2015, day four on my journey and this moment at Cromer:
I was pinching myself.
Through lots of thinking and planning, I’d finally got to a point where my new working life included making beautiful photographs at the top of a lifeboat slipway.
I was struck by the simplicity and power of this iconic structure. They have to do one job and do it flawlessly.
Not only that, but they have to stand up to thousands of tons of water pounding them day after day.
And let’s not forget the ultimate purpose — when a distress signal is raised, a band of volunteers will be on board their 32 tonne lifeboat while it hurtles into the sea to help somebody in trouble.
Powerful stuff indeed. To my mind, lifeboat slipways are perhaps the ultimate in utilitarianism.
Of course, since Cromer, I’ve subsequently been lucky enough to photograph the view from the top of several more slipways over the last four years and there’ll be many more to come in the second half of the journey.
But as I’ve made more of these boathouse views, I’ve grown very familiar with the different ways in which lifeboats are launched, varying from slipways and ramps to roads and rails.
Yet the lifeboat slipway still remains the most graphic of all to me. Who could fail to have their imagination sparked by the sight of a huge orange and blue lifeboat careering into the sea, making a great big splash before powering off into the distance?
MEET THE BECHERS
As my project progressed in that first year, patterns started to emerge in the Boathouse Views Gallery that reminded me of the photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Do you know their work? They’re well-known for their photographs of industrial objects and buildings that are doomed to disappear.
The Bechers’ Water Towers are perhaps their most famous ‘typologies’ — well, they’re certainly the ones with which I’m most familiar.
A TIMELINE OF TRAGEDY AND HOPE
So, enough rambling. Here’s the idea that’s been formulating in my brain box for nearly four years while I’ve been making my way around the coast, an idea that has finally been realised on the wall of Poole Museum:
It’s a grid of the nine all-weather lifeboat slipways I’ve photographed to date and, as the Bechers would describe, this is my first gridded tableau.
A limited edition of three, these images are all printed 12×10 inches, the same size as the original glass plate — just like my other limited edition prints — but these are made on smaller paper measuring 16×14 inches, so that they sit comfortably together in this form.
When I’d finished making this piece, I was entranced. It’s such a peaceful yet dynamic viewing experience. Very much the calm before the storm.
Two of these slipways (Penlee and Longhope) are no longer in active service following fatal lifeboat disasters, and one of the slipways (Selsey) doesn’t exist having been demolished to make way for the station’s new Shannon class lifeboat.
This really is a slice of lifeboat history, a record of transition, a timeline of tragedy and hope.
BACK OF AN ENVELOPE
There’s so much more to say about it but, in short, I couldn’t believe I’d produced the photographs that would enable this kind of finished piece.
For two reasons: the extraordinary logistics behind using such an old photographic process and one other simple fact — the sheer number of miles travelled to each of the lifeboat stations featured in the grid.
When I introduced the grid to my patrons towards the end of last year, I made some back-of-an-envelope calculations of the miles covered from my Newcastle studio:
- Mousehole (top left) = 482 miles
- The Lizard (top middle) = 483 miles
- Cromer (top right) = 254 miles
- Longhope (middle left) = 443 miles
- Bembridge (middle middle) = 364 miles
- Selsey (middle right) = 364 miles
- Tenby (bottom left) = 344 miles
- The Mumbles (bottom middle) = 356 miles
- Padstow (bottom right) = 455 miles
Total = 2712 miles (counting Mousehole / The Lizard as one trip and averaging Tenby / The Mumbles to 350 miles and as one trip)
2712 x 2 (return) = 5424 miles = the 5000 mile artwork!
That’s quite a distance and one of the details about Lifeboat Slipways 2015-2018 that I love.
A DEDICATED WEB GALLERY
PRINTS, POSTCARDS AND CALENDAR
The prints on display at Poole Museum are all for sale and are available on this new dedicated page.
They’re all made by me and limited to just 50:
I’ve also published two postcard packs to commemorate the opening of the exhibition:
My 2019 calendar lasts for 13 months, so there are still 11 full months left to enjoy. It’s also a way to own 13 stunning prints including five of the images that feature in the exhibition at Poole Museum:
MOMENTS FROM THE PRIVATE VIEW
BECOME A PATRON
If you’d like to become a patron, you can find out all about it here:
If you’d like to learn about other ways you can support my work, here’s the page you need:
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND PRINT DONATION
I would like to thank every single person who has helped me on the journey so far, particularly the RNLI volunteers themselves. Without these ordinary people doing extraordinary things — all in the spirit of saving lives at sea — there would be no story to tell and no photographs on the walls of Poole Museum.
I would also like to thank the RNLI Heritage Team and Poole Museum for offering and enabling the largest public exhibition of my work so far.
By way of thanks for this opportunity, I have offered to donate all the prints in the exhibition to the RNLI.