FOUND FILM: A WINDOW INTO THE PAST / by Deen Schroeder

The first roll of film that I found in a forgotten camera seemed like a lucky coincidence and a reminder of the beauty of film photography. The idea of seeing photos that no one had ever seen before was magical. Sharing that first article on social media led me to find the person who originally took the photographs and I had the opportunity to return those memories to their rightful owner.

Film is a truly incredible technology because it can retain information in celluloid for years and years. Freezing moments in time for generations. This is a decisive advantage that film has over digital. Hard drives crash, computers burn out, the cloud can get hacked, you could lose your passwords and within one generation all your digital photographs will be lost in the cacophony of digital imagery and your grandchildren may not be able to appreciate the world in the same way you once did.

On a recent trip to The Collectors Treasury I decided to rummage through their cabinet of forgotten cameras. Many of the cameras locked in the dusty glass cabinet are not worth much and very few actually function, but I enjoying fiddling with these relics. Old film cameras were built to last, and with a basic understanding of film cameras you can work out how they all work. While I played around with some rusty old Pentax’s, ancient range finders and discarded TLRs, I discovered something very interesting.   

This is the Kodak 1a Autographic Jr which was manufactured in 1915. The camera looked to be in wonderful condition, the bellows looked great, the shutter and aperture still worked wonderfully and interestingly enough I found a roll of film locked in the camera. I carefully prodded my way through the controls and through sheer luck I figured out how to wind up the whole roll, remove it and store it safely away from any harsh light. I decided to buy the camera because even if it didn't work, I thought that it would be a wonderful addition to my growing camera collection.

The film looked very old but I had no clue as to how old it might be. I am not ashamed to admit that I can get seriously nerdy about these details and before long I dove into some research about the camera and the film that I had found. The film that was left in the camera was 116 medium format film, a format that dates back to 1899 and was in use till the late 1980s. The film gives you a 70mm negative which is exactly the same size as the film used to make IMAX films. The 116 format is slightly smaller than the modern 120 medium format film but twice the size of the more common 35mm format.

The next step in this fun adventure was trying to figure out what type of film it was. Inspection of the roll itself and with some clever Googling, I found out that it was Kodak Verichrome Pan. This was a 125 speed black and white film that Kodak manufactured between 1956 and the late 80s. Therefore this film was anywhere between 30 and 60 years old. However, a real film nerd would never be satisfied with such a broad date range, so I tried to do a little more investigation. I turned my attention to the logo on the actual film roll in the hope that the branding gave any indication of the time period. On closer inspection I realized that this specific roll of Kodak Verichrome was only sold between 1961 and 1970.

 The next big question was whether or not there were any pictures on this 50 year old film that I found in a 100 year old relic that I discovered under a pile of dusty old film cameras. I just had to find out, so I took the film to my friends at The RBG Pixel Lab to see if they could help.

They looked at me like I was a total eccentric weirdo for bringing in this ancient film, but they were able to help develop the negatives and even scanned the images with a custom scanning mask that they needed to make for this old format. Amazingly enough, this film survived the last half century and of the 8 images that a roll of 116 film could produce, 6 beautiful images emerged from the celluloid.  

I am still in the process of uncovering as much information about these images as possible but for now, let’s appreciate the magic of film...

Film is not dead. The photographs have brought to life a time that has been long forgotten and through the wonder that is film, these moments have been able to bridge a 50 year chasm in space and time.