JACK LOWE AND THE LIFEBOATS: “CLOSING THE LOOP ON HISTORY”
Jack Lowe is a photographer from Newcastle upon Tyne who has devoted his life to telling the heroic stories of every RNLI lifeboat station in the UK and Ireland, through the images he captures with his Edwardian field camera and mobile darkroom. So far, he’s covered more than thirty five thousand miles over five years and estimates it will be at least another three years before he arrives at the final, 238th station.
Even in this mood, with greyed-out skies glowering suggestively from overhead and waves dashing themselves against the distinctive curve of the harbour, the village of Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland invites a certain level of romanticising. Climb to the top of the cliffs looking out over the water and you can’t help but conjure the same sort of feelings that must have so intoxicated adventurous spirits of time gone by. Rays of light peak through here and there, pointing the (or perhaps simply a) way to expeditions unknown. At the edge of the horizon, you can just about make out the Northern Irish coast some 34 kilometres away. Today, it dissolves into water and sky to mesmerising effect.
Not that Jack Lowe is too bothered about the view. “If people say to me, when I’m in Portpatrick or wherever I happen to be, ‘oh, you have to go to this specific spot and photograph the view,’ I’m like… why?” He casts his eyes around as he speaks, looking for the one thing that he needs right now. “They’re only telling me that because so many people have taken that picture already. Am I going to do anything better than them? I feel like I can only make photographs when I have a specific story to tell, and I think that’s a trait I’ve always had as a photographer.”
“You know there’s so much crap going on in the world,” Jack says. “I was finally catching up with the news when I got home and just thought: this is the opposite to what I’m trying to create with The Lifeboat Station Project. Together, we’re creating a good news story in a tempestuous world and I’m very proud of that.”
The story that Jack has been telling for the past five years (and that he expects to spend at least the next three telling) is that of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – the charity that saves lives at sea. Using an Edwardian plate camera and a development process that was more commonly used in the 1850s, he travels around making portraits of the heroic men and women who crew the boats and save lives around the entire coast of the UK and Ireland. With 238 lifeboat stations and an estimated 4000 volunteers to document, this is no small undertaking –as of February 2019, Jack estimated that he had already travelled more than 35000 miles in pursuit of the pictures. We’ll circle back round to how he actually covers that ground later, but it’s also worth noting that this mammoth project is almost entirely self-funded. A true labour of love, the project is kept going by donations and merchandise purchases from the ever-growing number of fans the project has attracted. Fans who no doubt share in Jack’s passion and admiration for his subjects. Fans who appreciate the sheer endeavour that his historic documentation – never before attempted – entails.
But, right now, Jack doesn’t need majestic views or postcard-picturesqueness. What he does need is his apron, which he finds, swoops up and holds out in front of him. The heavy duck canvas is well-worn, mottled with splashes of jet-black fluids. He bows his head slightly and secures it around the collar of his shirt. He wraps the straps around his back and ties them just so. One gets the impression that something vaguely ritualistic is being played out. And then he’s off! Back down to the front, to try, once more, to get a portrait of Robert, the coxswain of the Portpatrick lifeboat crew. It’s a task that’s been proving rather difficult, given that, understandably, he has been preoccupied with the literally lifesaving tasks that make up his day-to-day. And here was Jack, a self-described “posh boy”, trying to get him to pose for a photo.
“A big part of my day,” as Jack reflected later, “was taken up with Robert saying, ‘no-no-no I’m not having my picture taken.’” When first embarking on the project five years ago, he continues, he would have been intimidated by such stand-offs. Now though, Jack sees it as another enjoyable challenge in a series of enjoyable challenges that make up what he refers to as “his life’s work.” After biding his time a while longer, there suddenly came a moment in which Jack confided that he was going to put his apron on. “My apron is my uniform. It gives people a very different impression of me. They see this guy wearing a silver nitrate-splattered apron and suddenly they see that I make things. That I graft.” The apron has the desired effect. Robert softens and the portrait is captured.
“ Things like that happen every day,” says Jack. “As much as anything, I think it’s my job to try and have compassion, and grace, and be accepted by every single person I meet. Because we’re all just humans, you know?”
Jack makes quite a few statements like this over the course of the day. Statements that might – on the page, perhaps, or coming from more self-important people – sound a little grandiose. A little over-earnest in that way that gives the impression of not actually being remotely earnest at all. But from Jack, such statements are tempered by the undeniable earthiness of his undertaking, coupled with a heartfelt reverence for the gritty valour ingrained in the subject matter that he shoots. No one, it seems, is more important than those brave souls who risk their own lives to save others. Who push out into depths that are never not at least a little bit unknowable. Never not foreboding, no matter how many times they feel the same sting of icy saltwater from the same stretch of sea they might have patrolled for years. “A few years ago,” Jack says, “one crew member was looking at the photos I’d made and said to me, ‘oh, we look like the heroes of old!’” Jack’s response was inevitable, though no less true for it. “I said to him, that’s because you are those heroes of old – you’ve got the same core values. But this guy had never seen it like that. Okay, he’s not using rowing boats hauled through the town by horses like they used to, but his intentions were no different. His willingness to drop everything at a moment’s notice and go help someone in trouble at sea was exactly the same.”
These sorts of exchanges between Jack and his subjects have become commonplace – these epiphanic moments in which the crew members see themselves in a different light, filtered through Jack’s enthusiastic, esoteric lens. As he no doubt correctly surmises, it is the archaic process that plays a big part in triggering such a reaction. “It closes the loop on history,” says Jack, “because the very first photos of lifeboat volunteers will have been made like this. That’s what helps the crews today see themselves as ‘those heroes of old’.” He pauses for a moment, breaking from the processes that he has already carried out thousands of times, in hundreds of coastal communities around the country. “I mean it when I say this is my life’s work. If I’m creating a legacy for myself then it’s through this project. But actually, it’s just as much – if not more so – about creating a legacy for the lifeboat service people and volunteers.”
This rings true because whenever you ask Jack about how he came to be a photographer, what first piqued his interest in the discipline, he can’t help but interweave a narrative about the lifeboats. Every anecdote about receiving his first Instamatic as an eight-year-old bleeds into a reminiscence about the first time he went to the Inshore Lifeboat Centre in East Cowes at the age of ten. Every story about turning his childhood bedroom into a darkroom merges with a story about the lifeboat men and women he viewed as real-life superheroes.
And what shape does that Jack Lowe lifeboat superhero story take today? There’s brief talk of the role that clothes play, in helping him get into the role of narrator-director he’s compelled to play. Inevitably though, the garments that empower Jack and his subjects err towards utilitarian uniforms rather than fantastical costumes. “To have clothes that feel like they channel a certain mindset, that show more than anything that you have a job to do… that’s what I’m drawn to,” says Jack. “And actually, what I love about Nigel Cabourn is that the clothes capture those things really well. They feel really appropriate, because the clothing doesn’t just celebrate, say, the maritime traditions and reference points that I’m interested in. They also seem to really capture something about the working person who might have worn such things.”
Jack’s next touchstone – the films of Wes Anderson – initially seems a slight curveball. What makes an auteur known for stuffing his films with hyper-stylised flights of aesthetic fancy resonate so thoroughly with a man who has dedicated his life to documenting the most salt(water)-of-the-earth people, in the most rigorously uniform fashion? The parallels become clear when Jack breaks it down: “To make a project like mine successful, I think it needs to have a few key ingredients that all Wes Anderson’s films have. A purpose. A journey. An emotional hook.” Jack pauses to think a little further, before adding, “and, just like in [Wes Anderson’s 2004 film] The Life Aquatic, for example, an interesting vehicle.”
In Jack’s case, that interesting vehicle isn’t the Jaguar Shark-hunting, banana yellow submarine of the aforementioned film. Instead, it takes the form of ‘Neena’ a retired-ambulance-turned-mobile-darkroom that is certainly up there in the idiosyncratic, filmic modes of transport stakes. Jack tells a wonderful story of how he came to acquire Neena. It involves eBay-driven destinies and two tearful sisters who were sad to let their beloved vehicle go, but did so on the condition that Jack kept the adorable name: a pun, if you didn’t already make the connection, on the sound that ambulance sirens make.
Since then, Neena has become a special part of the project, not only serving its practical purposes as a darkroom on wheels, but in inspiring adoration from the many people following Jack’s work on social media. “By personifying her, and painting her name on the side, by creating the hashtag #neenaspotting, by printing Neena t-shirts… It made a thing into a thing.” Jack returns here to a different Wes Anderson film, one in which the two protagonists finally find a thing – a beach in this case – that lets them live exactly as they’d always dreamed they should. A thing to which those characters gave a fittingly wondrous name. “Neena,” Jack says. “She’s my Moonrise Kingdom.”
Jack is in the comforting confines of Neena now, hunched over his workstation with a breezy dedication which belies the untold number of times he must have been in such a position. Outside the ambulance, the skies finally decide to do what they do best in this part of the world. Torrents of cold, hard rain start lashing against the water; the rocks; Neena; the village and its inhabitants. Soon, Jack will head back out, unperturbed and embracing yet another of the challenges he has familiarised himself with over the years. His boots will stay sturdy, his gaze never steadier. Later, in the local pub, he’ll be welcomed into rounds of beer by a man who put up barriers to him just hours earlier. “By then they’ve seen your endeavour, they’ve seen that you’re just trying to bring something to the party,” Jack says when we catch up a few days later.
Maybe the power of Jack’s work comes in the way it leaves multitudes of Moonrise Kingdoms in its wake. Conjured from people and places more British kitchen sink than Tinseltown kitsch, sure. From people and places defined by dogged resolve and relentlessly inhospitable conditions – but all the more wondrous for it. Like all great photographers, Jack finds that innate something under the surface to shine a light on, and in this case it’s a something worth celebrating. Worth illuminating and immortalising in grayscale plates. Worth braving that uniquely coastal combination of wind and rain and cold, knowing that it’s only a fraction of what those figures in the pictures go through every day.
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