Kati Dimoff reaches for the dusty old Argus C2 sitting on the shelf of a Portland, Oregon, Goodwill store. She inspects the camera and realizes it has just what she’s looking for – a roll of undeveloped film, still sitting inside and waiting to tell a story. And she will barely believe the explosive images that await her when she has the photos processed.
What Dimoff didn’t know about the camera was that it had held onto the same roll of film for a whopping 37 years before it fell into her hands. Although the strip did have some damage, one Portland photo lab had the expertise to develop it. And it revealed near-perfect images of an infamous event.
And that wasn’t the only story told by the startling pictures, which came out in black-and-white. They revealed the details of a disaster, but they also showed brighter times and highlighted age-old family connections. For someone like Dimoff, who collects and develops old film to see its contents, this Argus C2 was the ultimate find.
Kati Dimoff told The Oregonian newspaper in 2017 that, a few years prior to her interview, she had discovered a new hobby. As a photographer herself, it made sense that she sought out old film cameras when she went to secondhand stores such as Goodwill. However, in doing so, she wasn’t looking for a new piece of equipment.
Instead, Dimoff hoped to find old cameras that still contained the former owners’ rolls of undeveloped film. Her first purchase yielded some pretty special images, which got her hooked to the hobby. She said, “The first roll of undeveloped film I ever found had a photo of the Portland International Raceway in maybe the ’70s or the ’80s.”
And finding that set of images spurred Dimoff onward. She said, “That inspired me to keep looking for old film in Goodwill cameras.” The photographer continued to find treasures, too. She has photos of England, a speaker at Monte Carlo, zoo animals and a mysterious stone building with an unidentified woman walking inside.
Still, one of Dimoff’s finds would trump all of her previous film-roll discoveries. This time, she visited her go-to Goodwill in Portland on May 26, 2017, and she plucked an Argus C2 from the secondhand store’s shelves. The camera model had been in production between 1938 and 1942.
Better yet, the Argus C2 still had a roll of film inside. Dimoff explained to website PetaPixel that she purchased the camera and followed her go-to routine for when she finds film. The photographer said in 2017, “Every time I’m in southeast Portland, I run into the big Goodwill on Grand Ave and check all their film cameras for exposed but undeveloped rolls of film.”
After that, Dimoff said, “If I find one, I buy the camera and take the film to Blue Moon Camera and Machine in the St Johns neighborhood to have it developed.” Blue Moon specialized in developing old film, as well as expired or otherwise out-of-production brands. Plus, as she told The Oregonian, it “is one of the only labs left in the country that uses some of the old chemical processes.” Dimoff was later keen to stress, too, just what a fantastic job the outlet had done in processing the old film and extracting its amazing images.
Still, Blue Moon no longer had the exact machinery to process the particular type of film contained within the Argus C2. Instead, it processed the pictures, many damaged due to age, in black-and-white. Even without color, though, the shop’s staff could see that Dimoff had found something truly incredible. They even left a note on the package of pictures when it came time for her to pick them up.
One of the pictures, at least, seemed benign enough. It seemed to show a family – new parents and their baby in the arms of an older woman, perhaps the grandmother or great-grandmother. Dimoff had no way of identifying the people, but, luckily, she had the power of the press on her side.
Because the rest of the film was so spectacular, The Oregonian shared the family photo, too. Dimoff hoped that distributing some of them would help reconnect the camera – and its stunning film contents – to its original owner. In no time, one of the people in the picture came forward.
Just two days after Dimoff’s photos went live on The Oregonian’s website, Oregon Live, Mel Purvis was scrolling through the gallery. A friend had linked him to the article via Facebook, so he clicked through to see the photos. Then, as he later told the newspaper, “I almost fell out of my chair.”
That’s because Purvis saw his own face on Oregon Live, alongside his wife, Karen, and his grandmother, Faye Gardner, who was holding his son, Tristan. They had snapped the photo in their Eugene, Oregon, yard in 1980, just before they went to a football game. Purvis recalled the reason for the snapshot, saying, “My grandmother had come to Eugene to visit her great-grandson.”
Not only that, but Purvis believed it was his grandmother who had brought along the Argus C2 to snap the family portrait. That meant she would have taken the rest of the incredible snaps found on the roll of film – and it was par for the course for someone like Gardner, who had lived an extraordinary life.
Purvis recounted how Gardner, his maternal grandmother, had come into the world in 1899 and, at some point, she had moved from Nebraska to Oregon. In spite of the times (for it was highly uncommon back then for women to own businesses) she’d had her own clothing store in the city of St. Helens. This pointed to Gardner’s strong character, her grandson said.
Purvis explained, “She was a very independent woman.” Gardner had clearly tried to instill similar qualities in her grandchildren. With them, she explored the natural surroundings of her St. Helens home. The family went fishing together, and her grandson recalled his grandmother as “a big rock hound, too.”
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Purvis remembered his grandmother taking a hike up Mount St. Helens just before he reached his teenage years. Gardner broke her leg on the climb, but the effort to make it up the summit was a testament to the independent, pioneering spirit she had always exhibited.
Seeing the picture again was an emotional moment for Purvis: life had changed a lot since taking the snapshot in 1980. For one thing, Gardner died the year after she came to visit and captured the moment on her camera. And in 2009, Purvis had lost his son, Tristan, who’s pictured as a baby in the photo.
Most of all, Purvis told The Oregonian that he had “goosebumps” because his mother – Gardner’s daughter – had passed away five days prior. It all felt serendipitous, considering he’d had no idea what had happened to his grandmother’s belongings after she passed away in the early 1980s.
Regardless of how the Argus C2 had got to the Portland Goodwill, it would return to its rightful owner. Dimoff promised to reconnect Purvis with his grandmother’s snapshots, as well as her age-old device. As soon as the paper identified the people in the photos, Dimoff had replied, promising, “I’ll be mailing the camera and the prints to him.”
And, surprisingly, that’s only half of the story of the camera and photos that Dimoff found. The rest of the images had a story to tell, too. A few of the pictures might have slid under the radar, unclear they were tied with a major disaster. However, a few of the other snapshots gave the game away.
For instance, one photo shows an ivy covered fence in front of both a white house and an industrial building. Even in black-and-white, the image appears bright, with light clearly shining on the buildings’ facades. A few clouds seem to hover overhead in what is an otherwise clear sky.
Another image shows the Lewis and Clark Bridge, which connects Longview, Washington, to Rainier, Oregon. The impressive cantilever bridge opened in March 1930, covering nearly 8,300 feet in distance. Yet ordinarily, snagging a photo of this impressive architectural feat wouldn’t be that unusual or noteworthy, either.
But then, a third photo revealed precisely what Gardner had tried to capture with her Argus C2. This photo had the same backdrop as the one with the white abode and industrial structure. However, this time, it was clear that the puffs in the sky weren’t clouds – they made up a massive plume of smoke.
And that’s why, when Dimoff picked up the photos from her trusted Blue Moon Camera and Machine, the developer had left a message on the packet. The person wrote, “Is this from the Mount St. Helens eruption?” The photos certainly seemed to have come from the major disaster, which occurred in 1980.
In spring 1980 experts knew that something was about to happen at Mount St. Helens, a stratovolcano in Washington that sits 96 miles from Seattle and 50 miles from Portland. So, they installed a series of seismographs throughout the Cascades range. The mountain system stretches from Canada’s British Columbia through to Oregon and encompasses the peak.
Three days after the seismographs started tracking activity, they got a hit. An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.0 rocked the earth beneath Mount St. Helens. That set off a chain reaction of smaller shakes that got stronger and stronger. Soon enough, the area was experiencing multiple 4.0 magnitude earthquakes every day.
By mid-May, Mount St. Helens had a new feature: a 450-foot bulge protruding from its north side. The major bump told experts that magma had begun to rise to the top of the volcano, deforming its structure. In other words, the conditions were right for an eruption; it was a matter of not if, but when.
It happened on the morning of May 18, just one day after the bulge’s measurements reached the 450-foot mark. At 8:32 a.m., an earthquake with a 5.1 magnitude rumbled Mount St. Helens, and that was all that was needed to trigger the peak’s pent-up pressure. A plane had been flying overhead conducting an aerial survey, and its occupants watched as a landslide began to shift down the sides of the newly formed crater.
With that, the entire north side of Mount St. Helens began to plummet downwards, too. Its collapse allowed all of the gas and magma to explode sideways from its peak. The ensuing blast created what’s known as a nuée ardente, a colossal, radiant cloud of debris and piping-hot gas that shot out of the breach faster than the speed of sound.
The nuée ardente completely obliterated everything within an eight-mile radius of Mount St. Helens. Then came a shockwave, which extended almost 20 miles beyond the glowing cloud. It was strong enough to take down massive, 100-year-old trees. And the forest beyond this line didn’t escape unscathed: its trees remained standing, but the land was burned and removed of all signs of life.
Mount St. Helens hadn’t finished, though. Another eruption, this time a vertical one, exploded out of the volcano’s summit. A mushroom-shaped cloud composed of gases and ash soared a dozen miles into the air. Over the next week, 540 million tons of charred debris settled across no fewer than seven states.
Instantly, the eruption of Mount St. Helens became the most destructive volcano blast in the history of America. The explosion and all of its devastating side-effects killed 57 people, as well as thousands of animals that lived in the surrounding mountainous environment. Homes, cars, roadways and infrastructure were all destroyed, too, at a cumulative cost to the area of over $1.1 billion.
Nowadays, experts keep tabs on all of the volcanoes that dot the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, including those in the Cascades. But Mount St. Helens sits on a seismically active area, which means sooner or later the volcano will almost certainly erupt again.
Of course, it’s impossible to say just when Mount St. Helens will reactivate. Experts just have their seismic data to indicate if and when the area starts to wake up again. And the peak has shown signs that it might have another blast, but even the most recent incident in 2008 ended with a plume of steam and little else.
Because the original eruption was such a major event in Washington and Oregon, though, those who witnessed it will never forget Mount St. Helens. And that’s a good thing, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website.On the anniversary of the 1980 blast, it wrote on its website, “Becoming knowledgeable about the hazards within our communities and then preparing with an emergency plan for our families can help us live in greater safety and comfort now.”
The photos that Dimoff found served as a great reminder, nearly 40 years after the fact. And, for her, the images held a sentimental value, as well. She told Fox News via email, “Mount St. Helens is my favorite place. It feels sacred there. So, when I realized my found film had images of the eruption, it felt like it was meant to be.”
That feeling didn’t subside even after viewers of the images debated precisely when they were taken. Although the images did, indeed, show Mount St. Helens during its most famous eruption, The Oregonian said that they probably didn’t come from the day of the initial blast. Instead, they were likely snapped on July 22, 1980, when the peak emitted stunning steam plumes post-eruption.
Regardless, for Dimoff, there was only one part of the story that didn’t make sense. She admitted in her email to Fox News, “I was curious how it could be that anyone would shoot images of the eruption, which was such an iconic time here in the Pacific Northwest, and not run right out and get them developed.” Luckily for the world, the Argus C2 fell into her hands – and she finally got the pictures processed for the world to see.