Welcome, my name is Jack Lowe. I’m a documentarist using Victorian photographic techniques, digital audio recordings and social media to tell the story of The Lifeboat Station Project, an idea I first conceived in 2012.
As you can imagine, I’m regularly asked lots of questions, so I’ve made this special page collating a selection of them with my answers below.
I hope it’s useful!
WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE LIFEBOAT STATION PROJECT?
I haven’t been commissioned to make The Lifeboat Station Project. I came up with the idea and first presented it to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in 2012. My proposal was initially turned down while the RNLI worked on photographer Nigel Millard’s fine book, Courage on our Coasts.
Over the following year or two, I honed and refined the idea further before presenting it again in the Spring of 2014. I was invited to RNLI HQ in Poole for further talks and my idea was then approved by the charity, giving me their blessing to photograph their crews.
HOW BIG IS THE PROJECT?
I am visiting all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland, a journey that will take around eight years to complete.
Ultimately, there’ll be about 1000 glass plates altogether and I estimate that 4000 lifeboat volunteers will feature in them.
WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?
In a topsy-turvy world, I’m endeavouring to share a good news story and to shine a light on the greatness of others — in this case, the lifeboat volunteers around our shores.
I’m doing something I believe in, following my heart and turning my childhood passions for photography and the RNLI into a meaningful, engaging and life-enriching body of work for all to enjoy.
HAS COVID-19 DELAYED THE PROJECT?
Yes, it certainly has! Click here for the public post I wrote at the time.
You can now also find the video I originally posted from Dart (my 150th station) on the Films page in the Members’ Area.
My last station visit was Dart on 15th March, so if I can pick things up again in the spring of 2021, that’ll be a delay of one year.
However, that could work out neatly because it means I would likely finish in 2024, the RNLI’s 200th anniversary!
WHAT’S YOUR NORMAL JOB?
This is my normal job!
I’ve worked in photography for as long as I can remember — since taking photographs of my schoolmates on Sports Day, processing the films at home overnight and selling them prints the next morning.
In 2014, I brought my previous photographic chapters to a close and threw everything into The LSP.
It’s been a high risk strategy but I believe the only way to achieve my original vision is to totally commit myself to it.
Now I find myself in the midst of a classic scenario: I’ve gone too far to turn back, and nor would I want to.
There is no Plan B.
I utterly believe in The Lifeboat Station Project, but making such a huge commitment has not always been easy!
CAN I PICK YOUR BRAINS?
Yes, you can…
If you like my approach and would like to discuss the progression of your own creative path, use the Mentoring page to book an audio or video call with me.
WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU START THE LSP?
Logistical preparations for the first mission (LSP1) began in the winter of 2014. I hit the road for the first time on 11th January 2015, ready to photograph my first station on 12th January 2015.
The first station was Southwold on the East Anglian coast in Suffolk.
ARE YOU GOING TO EVERY RNLI LIFEBOAT STATION?
Yes. There are 238 operational RNLI lifeboat stations and I’m going to every single one of them.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
I’m managing to document around 30 lifeboat stations per year.
238 divided by 30 = 7.9 years
If I manage to keep going at the current pace, I expect to finish by the end of 2022. That means it will have taken me around eight years from start to finish!
UPDATE: The Covid-19 pandemic has paused my station visits and it’s unclear how long this will delay the completion of the project. As things stand, the delay may be a year or more.
ARE YOU GOING TO MY LOCAL STATION?
I certainly am! If there’s an RNLI station near you, I’ll be visiting it at some point (if I haven’t already).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT THE LATEST ITINERARY?
I tend to work about a month ahead and announce the upcoming itinerary to members of The LSP Society first and then publicly.
You can find the latest itinerary using the interactive Mission Map.
WILL YOU BE PHOTOGRAPHING INDEPENDENT LIFEBOAT STATIONS TOO?
My project is born from a childhood passion for the RNLI, but photographing the independent lifeboat stations has certainly been on my mind as I appreciate it’s the same task carried out by similarly amazing people.
However, The LSP has become much bigger much sooner than I ever expected. It was originally meant to take me 3-5 years, which seems laughable now!
I expect to photograph all 238 RNLI stations by the end of 2024 at my current pace of 30 stations per year (depending on any future pandemic restrictions).
If that holds true, it’ll have taken me some 10 years to complete The Lifeboat Station Project (including the enforced Covid-19 delays).
There are close to 100 independent lifeboat stations in Britain and Ireland, so that’s potentially a further 3.5 years’ work.
I hope that my project raises the profile for all those who save lives at sea but by 2024, I think “that may have to be the that”…but never say never!
HOW CAN I FOLLOW THE JOURNEY?
In June 2020, I decided to stop sharing the story of the project on Facebook and Instagram — I wrote a blog post called A Social Dilemma, a 10 minute read explaining why.
Since taking that strong stance, the best places to follow the journey are now:
HOW’S THE PROJECT FUNDED?
For the first two years of its life, I entirely self-funded the Project with money raised through the The LSP Shop — in essence, my own form of crowdfunding.
In November 2017, there was a turning point for the project when I launched my Patreon page.
It was incredibly successful and a real milestone in offering my online community a way to support my project whilst providing a more sustainable, predictable income for me.
However, after three years of using Patreon to help fund my project, I felt I’d become too reliant on a platform that is growing increasingly dominant…and expensive!
So, during the lockdown of November 2020 — and in my quest to be independent from that kind of scenario — I worked out how to build my own membership platform, an environment which I feel is much more suited to The Lifeboat Station Project.
And here it is, The LSP Society:
HOW ELSE CAN I SUPPORT THE LSP?
The financial peaks and troughs of this journey have sometimes been terrifying. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, at times, I have felt completely despondent and wondered if I could continue.
However, I have been buoyed by the support of the amazing people who love following the journey and appreciate what it takes to keep it (and me!) on the road.
Whether it’s a one-off purchase in The LSP Shop or a monthly donation, every little helps. I’m very aware that we all have different financial commitments, so I’ve tried to offer something suitable for everyone.
If you feel there’s something else I could offer my followers, please let me know.
WILL THERE BE AN EXHIBITION?
Yes. I’m building towards a major exhibition of the work once it’s all complete.
I dream of presenting the photographs and sound recordings in a huge, high profile venue. I imagine the lifeboat stations will be displayed in geographic order around the exhibition space with Neena (my mobile darkroom) as a centrepiece along with an all-weather lifeboat.
As ever, I’m daring to dream!
In the meantime have a look at the Events page for regional events and exhibitions as my work is regularly shown around the country.
My contribution to the Calm Before the Storm exhibition at Poole Museum in 2019 is a good mini-insight into my ambitions for this project.
Read about the exhibition in this blog post.
WILL THERE BE A BOOK?
Yes. I’ll publish a stunning book once the I’ve completed The Lifeboat Station Project. It will likely need to be more than one volume, hopefully including some of the sound recordings along with fold-out maps and a foreword by someone special.
At certain tiers, members of The LSP Society will be rewarded with a signed copy of the final book.
HAVE ANY FILMS BEEN MADE ABOUT YOUR WORK?
Click here to see them along with some other offerings on the Films page.
DO YOU GIVE TALKS ABOUT THE LSP?
I regularly give talks all round the country. Previous venues have included photographic societies, sailing clubs, RNLI events, institutions, festivals, cinemas and even Apple Stores.
You can find upcoming and current events on this page.
Previous media and event highlights can be found here.
If you’d like to book me for a talk, please click here to get in touch.
DO YOU HAVE AN ONLINE SHOP?
Yes, indeed. Sales through The Shop form part of the Project’s lifeblood.
Click here for prints, posters, the famous With Courage Keyring, mugs, and postcards.
CAN I BUY PRINTS OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS?
You certainly can. I sell Limited Edition Prints of every photograph featured in the Galleries.
Only 50 prints will ever be made from each photograph, making them truly historical artworks to be treasured for generations.
The sale of these prints helps to fund The Lifeboat Station Project and keep it on the road.
DO YOU OFFER DISCOUNTS AND SPECIAL OFFER SALES?
A lot of creators like me offer seasonal flash sales and discounts.
The topic of discounts comes up regularly within the artist community and I’m often asked from many directions if I’ll be doing the same.
The short answer is “No.”
The price of the things I offer — from mugs to postcards to limited edition prints — have been carefully considered from the outset, and there are already various ways to save money which I’ve outlined on the website.
Therefore, I only offer a hefty discount to the people that help me make the work — the lifeboat volunteers.
If you’d like to make a purchase, please don’t postpone for the potential of a seasonal bargain bin or sale because it won’t be happening. In doing so, you’ll be helping to create a good news story that shines a light on the greatness of humans in our tempestuous world.
Thank you to all those who’ve supported the project so far. I couldn’t make this unprecedented body of work without you.
WILL YOU BE GETTING INTO NFTs?
NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are a hot topic in the art world at the moment.
If you’ve heard them mentioned but don’t understand them, that tells you much of what you need to know. Think of a house of cards or the emperor’s new clothes and you’re most of the way there!
On the question of whether or not I will be “getting into them” with The LSP, the answer is “No.”
They are the antithesis of everything the project stands for. I’ll stick to tangible objects that can be treasured for generations — like my limited edition prints and, one day, the glass plates themselves.
MAY I COPY YOUR WORK?
No, you may not.
All purchases help towards the creation of The Lifeboat Station Project and, as things stand, I am the only person allowed to reproduce my work.
Whether viewing my images online or as a print you have purchased, please understand the love, sweat and tears involved in making such a unique project since first conceiving the idea in 2012.
If my work is copied, it is not only illegal and immoral but it also jeopardises the project.
DO YOU HAVE ANY STAFF?
I wish! I’d love to have one or two people helping me full-time one day.
In the meantime, I look after social media, admin, communications, logistics, this website, product development, marketing, fulfilling orders, scanning, printing, packaging, shipping, archiving, driving, washing up, vacuuming…oh, and photography!
WHO HELPS YOU ON THE ROAD?
I have a pool of kind friends who volunteer their time to help me on the road. I work alone if they’re not available and LSP fans who simply come along to say hello often get roped in as well!
YOU MAKE SOUND RECORDINGS TOO?
That’s right. I love making sound recordings as much as photography — they’re both great ways of story-telling and picture-making. Combine the two and the results can be very powerful indeed.
Click here to listen to some of my audio recordings.
HOW OLD IS YOUR CAMERA?
The 12×10 inch camera I use was made in 1905 by Thornton Pickard in Altrincham.
However, the wet collodion process I use is even older, dating from 1851. So, the camera is Edwardian and the process is Victorian.
I’ve used the same camera lens to make every single plate on The Lifeboat Station Project!
Click here to see all the plates I’ve made so far.
HOW DO YOU MAKE PRINTS FROM THE GLASS PLATES?
The photographic plates that I make are known as ambrotypes, which are direct positives on glass.
That means they weren’t shot as negatives (from which many prints could be made) but the intention was/is to place a black surface behind them (like cotton velvet, for example) so that they can be displayed as a positive rather than a negative.
It’s that glass plate — or ambrotype — that would have been given to the person commissioning the photograph ‘back in the day’.
Ambrotypes are like one-off sculptures, so the only practical way to reproduce them in the modern era is to scan them and make digital prints. And that’s exactly what I do.
Incidentally, you may or may not know that my previous chapter in photography involved working within the very highest standards of digital imaging. I spent twelve years as a printmaker and retoucher to other photographers, designers and artists. So, I see this project as the culmination of many skills learnt over the years.
DOES THE RNLI GET ANY MONEY FROM YOU?
Not directly. The RNLI is enjoying an enormous positive impact from The LSP including national media coverage, prestigious exhibitions, events and public engagement.
Outside of the institution, The Lifeboat Station Project is one of their biggest allies when it comes to spreading the word, engaging the lifeboat volunteers on the coast and garnering support for the charity.
The RNLI pay me a small license fee so that they can use my images to promote their work. In turn, that helps me to keep going.
Ultimately, the RNLI will benefit in many more ways too, not least from book sales once the work is complete (a percentage of the purchase price is expected to go directly to the charity).
By way of thanks for the volunteers’ efforts, Print No.1 of the crew photograph and Print No.1 of the Coxswain/Helm portrait are donated to each lifeboat station.
At the time of writing, I’ve donated well over 200 limited edition prints to the lifeboat stations who have helped me make this body of work, so there is already an exhibition being created around the coast on the walls of RNLI lifeboat stations!
Click here to read a message from the RNLI published in May 2018.
IT LOOKS LIKE THE PROJECT’S TAKEN ITS TOLL AT TIMES. WHY NOT TAKE A REST?
This is my full-time job, so if I stop, my income stops.
It has been hard, though, that’s for sure. I want The LSP to succeed so much, and I really went for it at the beginning! But I like to think that, as the journey has progressed, I’ve got better at making sure I plan rest days and make sure I look after myself.
However, I’m also aware that I don’t want the project to lose momentum or take people’s engagement for granted, so I try very hard to make sure that if you’re kind enough to follow my journey, I will make it worth your while.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the nature of the photographic process I use means I tend to hit the road through the spring and summer, when there is more available UV light, so there is also a seasonal limitation to what I can do and when.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR PEOPLE NEW TO ART COLLECTING?
I do indeed. I soon became very aware that many of my followers had never purchased limited edition prints before, so they might need a little guidance.
With that in mind, I came up with a few tips for buying my work.
I WOULD LIKE TO GET MY PRINT FRAMED. ANY SUGGESTIONS?
If you’ve bought a lovely new print, you might now be wondering how to frame it.
WHERE DID YOU GET THE AMBULANCE?
I bought my decommissioned NHS ambulance in 2014 on eBay!
DO YOU SLEEP IN THE AMBULANCE WHEN YOU’RE ON THE ROAD?
Absolutely not — Neena’s a mobile darkroom rather than a motorhome, so I might wake up with a headache at best.
When I’m not carrying photographic materials on board, she’s very comfortable to sleep in, though!
WHAT IS WET COLLODION?
Wet collodion is one of the very early photographic processes and was invented by a clever chap called Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.
Although the process isn’t very convenient — certainly by modern standards — it was the first ‘mainstream’ photographic process, popular until the 1880s.
Very simply put, the process involves using a piece of glass or metal (the plate) to carry various chemicals that have combined to make a light sensitive film on the plate.
The sensitised plate is carried from the darkroom (the converted ambulance in my case) to the camera in a light-tight plate holder. The plate is then exposed in the camera and immediately carried back to the darkroom for processing.
Time is of the essence as the whole process has to be started and completed within a 10 to 15 minute window…this digital thing will never catch on!
This video from George Eastman House sums it up well.
WHY ARE YOU USING SUCH AN OLD PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS?
After a long time working at the highest level in digital photography, I started using wet plate collodion so that I could get back in touch with what it takes to make a photograph. After all, that’s what I really loved about photography as a youngster.
Although the finished plates are extraordinarily beautiful, that’s not the primary reason I’m using this old process: wet plate collodion has proved to be the key to unlocking engagement with the lifeboat volunteers as well as my online followers, enabling me to tell the story that was waiting to be told in a compelling way.
In short, I feel it’s important to remember that every good project starts with the story, not with the way it’s made.
HOW DID YOU LEARN TO USE THIS PROCESS?
Like most things in life, I’m self taught. I read lots of books and watched lots of videos.
Once I felt I was ready to make a plate, I reached out to a couple of people I knew in the community. Jonathan Keys kindly filled in the gaps and helped me to make my very first plate in December 2013.
Tony Richards and Mark Voce have helped me since and the rest is down to experience — after making hundreds and hundreds of plates, I’ve certainly learnt a thing or two about what it might have been like to work as a photographer in the 1800s!
HAVE YOU GOT ANY TIPS FOR USING WET PLATE COLLODION?
I reckon I could probably write a book on all the things I’ve learned about using wet collodion (hmmm…there’s a thought).
In the meantime, here are five rules I’ve made for my journey that you might find helpful too:
- Method and cleanliness: Always be disciplined with the process and never cut corners. Ever.
- Always be in the task: If you’re in the middle of doing something, never be distracted while you’re doing it. Wait until you’ve safely finished the task before doing the next thing.
- Lean, sit or both: People must always be leaning against or sitting on something to ensure stability when being photographed. With the best will in the world, a person is very unlikely to stay absolutely still for the duration of a long exposure if they’re free-standing.
- Stay outside: When making portraits using available light, never position people more than a metre or so inside the threshold of a building, no matter how large the opening (the roll up doors of a lifeboat station, in my case). Although you may think there’s plenty of light, there won’t be enough for wet plate collodion once venturing into the depths of a UV shadow that’s imperceptible to humans.
- Never use pontoons: No matter how still you think the water is, it’s highly unlikely that a floating pontoon will be a stable enough platform on which to make a long exposure. They twist and yaw with the slightest waves, making a long exposure almost impossible!
If you’d like to ask Jack a question or you think something should be added to this list, please get in touch: