Carefully wrapped in layers of newspaper and tinfoil, the mysterious packages guard their secrets well. But a group of enthusiasts from Idaho are working hard to uncover their treasures once and for all.
Levi Bettwieser is a film technician from Boise, Idaho, with an interest in lost and forgotten things. Moreover, recently he acquired something from East Chicago, Indiana, that’s captured imaginations around the world.
What he came upon was incredible: 66 piles of old films from the ’50s. Meticulously packed and organized, they had, in fact, never been developed.
To add to that, some piles contained more than 30 rolls – with Bettwieser estimating that there were approximately 12,000 in total. And available evidence suggested that they’d all been shot by the same shutterbug – a man whom we know only as Paul.
Yet it wasn’t just the quantity of film that made this discovery so remarkable. Bettwieser was also intrigued by the way in which the rolls had been stored.
Indeed, each was wrapped in tin foil and a layer of athletic tape before being labeled. The rolls had then been placed into a cigar box, which was itself protected by tin foil, tape and newspaper.
Somebody, somewhere, had obviously taken great care to ensure that whatever the rolls documented remained safe and secure. So just how had they ended up untouched and unprocessed for more than half a century?
To Bettwieser, that question remains a mystery. Why? Because so far he’s managed to develop just a single roll of film, and the pictures it revealed have only added to the intrigue.
The images, which include candid shots of families going about their business, provide fascinating glimpses into 1950s life. But they also alerted Bettwieser to something much more pressing.
“Looking at the images that I rescued from that one roll,” he said in a YouTube video, “I can already see that the film is degrading. Every day this film goes unprocessed, little by little it’s fading away to time.”
Because there are so many rolls, processing them promises to be a mammoth task. So in order to get the job done Bettwieser has been appealing for help.
First he spoke to Portland, Oregon’s Blue Moon Camera store, which agreed to complete most of the processing at a substantial discount. Then Bettwieser launched an Indiegogo page with the aim of raising the additional $15,000 he needed.
By July 2016 the campaign had almost reached its target. And its success, furthermore, is largely down to a campaign that Bettwieser founded – one that’s dedicated to salvaging recently discovered films that had long remained undetected.
The Rescued Film Project manages an online archive of photographs taken between the 1930s and the 1990s. All the images were retrieved from rolls of film that, for whatever reason, had been left unprocessed.
The project is run under the belief that the images which are uncovered “deserve to be seen.” It’s for this reason that the fascinating photos are posted to a free-to-access internet gallery.
Furthermore, films from anywhere in the world can be donated to the Rescued Film Project, which can process pretty much anything – even if there’s water damage. Indeed, the archive’s stated aim is to rescue as many images as possible before they’re lost to time.
It’s an approach that’s led to some incredible results. In 2014 Bettwieser bought 31 rolls of undeveloped film at an auction in Ohio. When he processed them he discovered incredible, never-before-seen images from the Second World War.
One roll from a separate batch contained an amazing candid shot of President Eisenhower. Another featured snaps of the Apollo 13 mission being broadcast on a vintage TV.
So far the Rescued Film Project has saved more than 18,000 photographs, and it’s an amazing return that can only get larger. With numbers like that, who knows what treasures Bettwieser and co. may discover in the future?
Indeed, there are thousands more rolls on the Rescued Film Project’s to-process list. Meanwhile, Bettwieser has pointed out that if everyone who follows the campaign on social media each donates $1, the films will all be saved. Now that’s certainly an incentive to help out.