It takes me around an hour to prepare Neena (my mobile darkroom) for making glass plate photographs. Once that’s done, I can unpack my 12×10 inch Edwardian brass-bound field camera and fix it to my (much) more contemporary tripod.
With Neena ready one September day in 2017, I started to compose my very first photograph in Ireland. I could sense scepticism and intrigue from Roy Abrahamsson, the full-time station mechanic at Dunmore East lifeboat station.
In his quiet inimitable way, Roy was clearly excited by my visit but wasn’t quite sure why I was pointing my camera down the apparently boring, utilitarian gangway leading to the station’s ever-ready Trent class lifeboat.
I explained to Roy that I always start by photographing the view from the station, the scene which the lifeboat volunteers face when they respond to an emergency call.
Not only is it an intrinsic dimension to my project, but it’s a way to make sure the 1851 wet collodion photographic process is working properly before I start making portraits.
Still the scepticism lingered from Roy.
“Uh huh” he’d politely say as I described what I was doing.
“Just you wait, Roy!” I replied confidently.
In truth, it was false confidence as I was really quite nervous. Not because of the composition, but because the start of a mission is somewhat nerve-wracking.
I spend weeks preparing for each leg of The Lifeboat Station Project, not to mention the amount of travelling to get to a particular spot.
In this case, I’d driven from my studio in Newcastle upon Tyne to Stranraer where I stayed overnight (and where I will always remember the starlings roosting on the semaphore signal) before catching a ferry the next morning from Cairnryan to Larne in Northern Ireland.
After a cuppa with the Larne lifeboat crew, I drove south across the border for some 5 hours to Dunmore East, nestled in the south-east corner of Ireland.
I arrived at The Haven Hotel (very kindly booked and paid for by the lifeboat crew) a little bit later than hoped but just in time to order my first ever pint of Guinness in Ireland.
What a moment to savour.
And then onto the question of food. The kitchen was about to close, so I had to be quick. I was still wired from driving through the stunning — and aptly-named — Emerald Isle that I couldn’t quite concentrate on the menu.
“What should I have?” I asked one of the bar staff.
“Do you like beef?” she replied.
“Well, how about the best beef you’ll ever taste in your life?”
“That’s a tall claim. What if it’s not the best beef I’ll ever taste in my life?”
“Then you’ll simply be disappointed. But you won’t be hungry.” came the perfect reply.
I chose the beef. She was right. I can’t remember tasting better beef, nor can I imagine tasting any better again.
So, you see, an awful lot happens before I even get to a lifeboat station, which means that there’s also an awful lot riding on everything working correctly, and me getting it right.
With the camera set, it was time to head to Neena to make the light sensitive film on glass, just as I’d done hundreds of times before and just as the photographic pioneers used to do in Victorian times.
As Roy’s intrigue grew, so did my nerves, which I hoped I’d managed to conceal.
A few minutes later, I was reassured by the appearance of the film under the red glow of the safelight as I removed the glass from the silver tank and popped it into the plate holder.
Then a quick march back to the camera, remove the focussing screen, attach the plate holder, dark slide out, lens cap off, expose the plate for a few elephants, lens cap on, dark slide in, remove the plate holder, march back to Neena, safelight on, close the door, open the plate holder, swiftly pour the developer across the plate, count the seconds ticking on the clock, keep watching the plate, there’s the tell-tale smell of perfect development, gently pour a couple of litres of water over the plate to stop the development in its tracks, place it in the fixing tray, open the door, pour fixer over the plate, watch the image switch from negative to positive and…phew…job done.
A beautiful glass plate sits before our eyes.
Roy was amazed.
I was relieved.
In those moments, Roy told me that he would never look at the scene the same way again. A few years on, I hope that’s still true and that he remembers that wonderful morning we spent working together.
As the day continued, I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful view of the harbour too. We also made Roy’s portrait followed by the crew in the evening:
There was one more photograph on my list, though — that of the Coxswain, Michael Griffin.
Lots of photographers visit lifeboat stations. In the very early days of the project, I often had to overcome the sensation that I was just another photographer.
For example, sometimes there are crew members who’ve yet to hear about the project, which is why it pays for me to aim to be a zero — to start from scratch every day at each station as if it’s the first; never to assume that someone in these longstanding communities will have heard of me or understand what I’m doing.
At first, it was a bit like that with Michael when he made the journey down to the station to meet with me that afternoon.
“Any thoughts on where you’d like to be, Michael?”
“Whatever you like, Jack, whatever you like…” came the reply.
So, I went with my first idea and started composing the photograph. I loved that the wheelhouse of the Trent class was lurking in the background and that Michael was leaning against one of its giant fenders.
I looked up from behind the focussing screen and said, “You don’t really want to be here do you, Michael?”
“No, not really, but you carry on.”
“OK, understood, Michael. But I think you’re going to like this”
“Am I? Hmmm. I don’t want to look at the camera, so where shall I look?”
“Into the middle distance, Michael. And keep that steely look. It works well.” I said with a wry smile.
Michael glanced back at me with a similarly wry smile. And then I knew he was on side. Just as Roy had done earlier in the day, he watched the plate develop over my shoulder in Neena.
At that point, like so many before him, Michael then understood what I was aiming to achieve and was happy.
I was happy with the plate too. So that was good.
With that, it was time to carry on with my journey which would see me working along the Irish coast right until the end of that month, finishing at Valentia — my 100th station visit and the most westerly lifeboat station on the RNLI network.
DAUNTLESS COURAGE BY DAVID CARROLL
Fast forward to June last year when I heard from a chap called David Carroll who had taken on the huge task of writing a book about the station’s history.
His email began:
“Despite living in Dublin, I have written the history of the Dunmore East RNLI. I lived in Dunmore on the harbour ( my father was harbour master) just about 100 metres from where ‘Elizabeth and Ronald’ berths, when I was growing up. I have continued my interest in the RNLI throughout my life.”
He went on to ask if he could include my ‘iconic’ portrait of Michael.
I was flattered on all counts, of course, and duly agreed.
When the handsome book arrived just before Christmas I read these words by Frank Ronan, Chief Executive of the Port of Waterford in his foreword:
“The Dunmore East RNLI Lifeboat has long deserved to have its history recorded. ‘Dauntless Courage’ is that record.”
I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of honour to be considered a worthy note on the timeline of the Dunmore East RNLI lifeboat maritime community and to be a part of that record.
You can order the book from this dedicated page and all proceeds go towards supporting the community of Dunmore East RNLI lifeboat station:
A huge thank you to David Carroll for including me in his beautiful history book.
I’d also like to extend my thanks once again to Roy Abrahmsson who was an incredibly warm host, to Coxswain Michael Griffin, Neville Murphy and the rest of the Dunmore East RNLI crew and community — you made me feel so welcome during my first visit to your beautiful county and country.
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