Portrait of a Roundabout

Swan, Billy Mill and Cowgate — when strung together, these names could perhaps be mistaken for the title of an obscure new advertising agency.

Instead, if you ask a Geordie to name three roundabouts, I expect those are the names that would spring to mind first.

Hen, an old pal of mine, recently asked me if I’d make a photograph of Cowgate Roundabout, which lies at the northern end of Newcastle’s central motorway.

Even though it’s certainly a local institution, this could be perceived as a slightly odd request. There is, however, a simple reason behind it…

You see, when Hen was only fifteen years old, his father — Jimmy Henderson — passed away.

Jimmy used to work for Newcastle City Council and one of the only lasting relics of that time is his contribution to the construction of Cowgate Roundabout.

Hen even retrieved this treasured print of the construction crew, taken in the late 1960s just before work began:

The Cowgate Roundabout Construction Crew

The Cowgate Roundabout Construction Crew

Jimmy Henderson, one of the Newcastle City Council team who constructed the Cowgate Roundabout

Jimmy Henderson, smiling away in the middle of this crop…

It recently transpired that a £3m improvement plan has been given the green light — a plan that includes the removal of Cowgate Roundabout as we know it today.

With works due to start this summer and months of disruption ahead, it was time to get moving with our photograph of the site.

So, we mobilised Neena very early on Sunday morning. Our aim was simply to record the roundabout — usually extremely busy — in a peaceful state without any traffic.

In memory of Jimmy Henderson, our efforts resulted in this finished plate :

Cowgate Roundabout, Newcastle upon Tyne, shortly before its demolition.

Cowgate Roundabout — in memory of Jimmy Henderson. (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Behind the Scenes…

We made a lovely morning of it, not only loading Neena with the necessary photographic paraphernalia but also making sure we had a stash of fine coffee and treats.

Here are three of the images I shared on my Instagram feed at the time…

Jack Lowe on Instagram

Hen enjoying a coffee and pastry between plates. See the family resemblance with Jimmy, above?

Jack Lowe on Instagram

Standing in the doorway of my ambulance — a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Jack Lowe on Instagram

The vantage point.

My New Ambulance

It’s been a curve-curve ball of a week…

A while back you may remember that I was inspired by the work and adventures of Ian Ruhter who makes huge Tintypes in The States using his old blue van as a giant camera — a van he affectionately calls The Time Machine.

If you haven’t seen his now-famous Silver & Light video, I’ll include it at the bottom of this post for you. Watch it. You’ll love it.

At the beginning of my own journey in wet plate collodion, I’ve been fantasising about the kind of vehicle I might own one day to use as a mobile darkroom. So, I’ve been keeping a weather eye focussed on eBay to get an idea of what’s out there for when the time comes.

As you might imagine, there’s a plethora of weird and wonderful machines available. Two weeks ago, a decommissioned NHS ambulance came up for sale and I knew instantly that it would be perfect but, in all honesty, the timing felt too soon.

Mournfully, I watched it slip away — sold to some lucky buyer who I now envied…

Envy isn’t a pleasant emotion, so I quickly expelled the memory from my consciousness and endeavoured to move on. I managed that until eBay sent me a tantalising email stating:

“An item you were watching has been relisted.”

Shucks. Now it felt like destiny. The urge was strong to see if I could possibly bring this wondrous vehicle into my life. And thus, to cut a long story short and after a marathon return trip to Cheltenham yesterday, it became so.

This vehicle — shortly to be my wet plate collodion darkroom — is simply incredible. A ready-made lab on wheels. It’s built solidly, crammed with loads of  gadgets and has effortlessly awakened childhood memories (mainly involving Lego, toy cars and Ghostbusters).

The previous owners named it Neena — get it?

Anyway, I can’t wait for the adventures that lie ahead. Here it is — my new ambulance:

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion DarkroomJack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

Jack Lowe's Ambulance / Wet Plate Collodion Darkroom

As promised, Ian Ruhter’s Silver & Light:

Wet Plate: A Potted History

On Mark Tucker‘s blog, I’ve just stumbled across a potted history of the wet plate collodion process by George Eastman House.

The original work of the 1850s is often so beautiful. Some of it is shown in their short video, not least a stunning glass negative of an American steam locomotive.

During the commentary, the narrator mentions one of the aspects that I love about wet plate — that each one has a narrative derived from the very hand of the photographer. Every part of a wet plate tells a story in some way, whether it’s to do with the content or the process.

Lovely to see the famous image of Roger Fenton’s Photographic Van featured too.

Anyway, enjoy a few moments with this…

Sketch for a Darkbox

A year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined writing a post like this…

I’m now very close to making wet plates under my own steam and very excited about it too. It’s taken months of planning, research and patient gathering of the necessary paraphernalia.

I’ve got a beautiful camera lined up — a mahogany, brass-bound Thornton & Pickard half plate camera made around 1905 — as well as a plethora of knick knacks, largely sourced by trawling the web, not least eBay.

I mentioned in my last post that my mind is often whirring so, for years now, I’ve kept a detailed notebook for ideas and manifestation.

It’s a great way for me to release my mind of the burden of so much thinking — if you don’t keep a notebook yourself, I thoroughly recommend it!

If nothing else, it’s really satisfying to flick back through it and see the birth of new ideas that have since come to fruition.

Now, to make wet plates in the field, I’m going to need some kind of mobile darkroom facility. A bit like this but not quite like this:

dark tent, wet plate collodion, photography

Tente de photographe

Over time, I expect to create many incarnations of varying sizes ranging from boxes to vehicles. However, for now, I need something that’s suitable for half plate (4.75 x 6.5″).

Towards the start of the year, after seeing a Bastard Box in the superb Facebook Group, Collodion Bastards, I started thinking about ideas for my own darkbox.

Finally, this week, construction of the prototype is underway. I’ve never been too good at drawing, but I’ll share one of my sketches with you anyway so you can see how(ish) it will look…

Wet Plate Collodion, darkbox, sketch

22nd January 2014 — sketching ideas for my first wet plate collodion darkbox…

Here are some basic specifications:

  • 75 x 41 x 45cm;
  • Plywood construction;
  • White interior;
  • Rubylith windows on three sides and in the lid;
  • Dark sleeves in one of the long sides (adapted from an old changing bag);
  • Polyethylene catch-all drip tray in the base;
  • Interior LED strips behind Rubylith for added illumination when required.

Next up, photographs of the finished item. If you like what you see, I’m sure we’ll be happy to take commissions..!

Chapter Two: New Beginnings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that this video clip had a new relevance for me.

I’ve been asking myself some pretty straight questions recently. As a result, my eyes and mind have been opened up to a photographic sub-culture that I always knew existed but only ever dreamed about — until now…

On Thursday, this culminated in making my first ever glass Wet Plate.

And here it is:

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

From left to right, 5 minutes in the life of Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys

It’s a portrait of the team who rallied round to share their wisdom with me — new folks in my life to whom I’m extremely appreciative.

You’ll see the plate’s a bit of a mess due to my novice-like pouring technique but it still has a certain something, don’t you think?

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Detail from my first Wet Plate (Alastair Cook)

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Edge detail from my first Wet Plate — this one’s for Paul Kenny!

Actually, I’m in there too. During the five minute exposure (it was pretty dark), I strolled slowly in front of the lens to make sure I wasn’t left out.

The plate also now features in Bastards’ First Plate Gallery at Collodion Bastards (Wet Plate Work of Questionable Parentage).

My sincere thanks to Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys and Paul Cordes for their help, great company and for rounding off the year perfectly.

Afterwards, we decamped for cake and coffee at Heaton Perk to take away the taste of collodion in the back of our throats.

Bliss.

With best wishes to everyone for 2014, when there’ll be more to report on these new beginnings…