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Nearly every photographer who worked during the analog age ended up, at some point in their life or career, with a bag of stray rolls of film. Orphans. Lost. Thirty-six frames of mystery. These rolls represented the odd range of what was possible as a film photographer. Black and white high speed, slow speed, color transparency, color negative, 35mm, 120mm, 220, tungsten and even C-41 black and white.
When low on film or money a photographer might shoot a partial roll, rewind it, but leave the leader of the film out so that the roll could be reloaded at some future point and finished off. Often times that partial roll, again due to lack of funds or lack of memory about exactly what was on that particular roll caused the shooter to toss it into the lost pile. Tucked away in an old gear bag, in a closet or even in the refrigerator, these lost film piles would continue to grow, some to legendary proportions.
Most photographers threw these lost rolls of film away. I know because many of my colleagues and friends know I’m still a film fan, and I prefer to use film for most of my work, so when they find their stray rolls they typically also find their out-of-date, expired, unused film and call to ask if I want it.
The conversation typically revolves around their hanging on to film as long as they could, their subsequent fall into digital and their regret for not doing anything with the film they were about to throw away. Their giving up became my reward.
Ron didn’t throw his film away.
Based on the “analog” data attached to the rolls, meaning what was written on the canisters in Sharpie, the film dated back as far as 1990 and the famine in Somalia. As for how recent the “newest” rolls were it was a mystery, but his best guess placed his last film rolls around the 2001 timeframe. (He was wrong.) Turns out there are rolls from 2012.
The second unknown was what condition the film would be in after being kept in “closets, next to heaters.” Film has legendary archival characteristics, so I felt there was a good chance there would be recognizable images, but also knew that latent image keeping properties varied from film to film. Processing the film was a risk, but one that seemed acceptable. The creative industry talks about risk, but failure is no longer viewed as a commendable adventure. The world is too perfect now, but we were lucky because perfect was not something we were after.
What we were after, we found. Magic. Pure magic.
Northern Ireland riots, gangs in El Salvador, friends, Kosovo, family, China, Arafat, girlfriends, Iraq, photographers, advertising, refugees, Bill Clinton, Bob Carey, Al Gore and a wild mix of lost memories that forced Ron to sit quietly while doing mental detective work.
But there was more. The film wasn’t perfect. In fact the film was, in some cases, massively flawed. But it was BEAUTIFUL. A blend of mold, pooling dye, time and fog, the film had transformed into one-of-a-kind analog artwork representing some of the most important stories in recent history.
This is not a story about “look at how great my images are.” This is a story about the film era, the life of one of the most important conflict photographers in American history and the story of someone who didn’t throw this history and these moments away.
This story, and the reality of lost film, also hits home for countless other people who still have bags of lost rolls darkening the corners of their house, attic, etc.
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