A unique plate-glass photographic record of all the UK and Irish lifeboat stations and their crews (including Penarth’s) is being created by an expert in vintage Victorian photography – Jack Lowe – grandson of Dad’s Army star, the late Arthur Lowe.
Jack Lowe is touring the coast photographing lifeboat crews using techniques which date back to 1854 – almost to the dawn of photography – but which produces images with a quality and a character that can’t be matched, even by today’s digital cameras.
With the colloidal chemistry involved in making blank plates and developing and fixing the image there are, of course, no digitial pixels, no negatives and no grain.
The final finished photograph is always the one that was actually in the camera when the picture was taken – inextricably linking the subject and the image together.
In a mobile darkroom – converted from an old NHS ambulance – Jack mixes the chemicals, coats them on his own glass plates, takes the pictures on a 1905 vintage bellows-style plate camera, develops the exposed plates n site and then fixes them – to make them permanent.
It’s the equivalent of making your own film from scratch, taking each carefully composed photograph with the subject standing stock still, and then developing the chemically coated glass plates to create a transparent plate bearing the final – positive – image.
The process is called “wet-plate collodion” . The collodion carries a salt called cadmium, bromide which is deposited on the clear surface of the glass and sets on it . After exposyure the plate goes into a bath of silver nitrate . The silver combines with the salt to produce the halides which create the image. Thew only snag is that the entire process, from coating the clear glass to developing the ifnal image has to be done within about 10 minutes .
As in all cameras the developed positive image is inverted – but just needs to be turned over and viewed from the “wrong” side to see the subject properly.
The results are totally unlike today’s photographs and seem to imbue an innate feel and character to them – creating a direct link between today’s generation of lifeboat crews and their Victorian predecessors who also had their portraits on similar equipment
Jack Lowe is the grandson of Dad’s Army star Arthur Lowe – the Dad’s Army star who, unbeknownst to most people, was also a keen mariner and owned a large classic pre-war steam yacht called Amazon on which Jack spent some time during his childhood.
Jack is keeping alive the techniques and skills developed by the pioneers of photography more than a century a half ago. His quest to record all of Britain’s lifeboat stations using what many regard as still-unsurpassed Victorian technology is creating a unique catalogue of images which – once each plate has been developed and fixed and is dry – are sure to become historical documents in their own right.
After today’s visit to Penarth, Jack Lowe is calling in at Horton and Port-Eynon, Broad Haven, Fishguard, Cardigan and New Quay, and he will complete his project at Aberystwyth on September 24th.