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Discovering history in old, orphaned rolls of film

One of the pictures rescued from old rolls of film by Levi Bettwieser of the Rescued Film Project.

This month’s Pay It Forward goes to Levi Bettwieser, who's rescuing all the old canisters of film that have been forgotten or abandoned over the years.

While doing so, he's become an expert at developing just about every kind of film imaginable. But until then, the recovered rolls of film are kept in a refrigerator. Levi explained, “One of the biggest factors to film degrading is heat. The second is moisture.”

He’s now got a couple thousand rolls in that fridge.

“It doesn't completely stop the degradation process, but it definitely slows it down.”

He began the Rescued Film Project while buying up old cameras at flea markets. He discovered that many of them had rolls of film still inside.

Once word of the project spread, people started sending him their old rolls found in boxes in basements and attics. “They usually come from the states, but we do get donations of film from China, Australia, Greece, Canada ”

Levi never knows what he'll find when he develops the film. Some do come to him with descriptions, at least where they were found, but many have no clues at all.

Many are blank. “For every five rolls I process, maybe one of them will have pictures.”

The pictures he does find are glimpses of a lost past.

“We rescued a roll of film with a bunch of images of Dwight D Eisenhower on it. We contacted the Eisenhower Library and it turns out they were from a trip to Copenhagen.”

As you can imagine, not all film is in good condition. Some rolls have been damaged by time and elements. And yet, even damaged, the images have a kind of artistic quality to them.

A good example is the picture of a father and daughter fishing at a lake. Showing us the picture, Levi said, “You can see here, this is mold. And this these are mold veins, they crawl across the image and attach to the emulsion which stays on after you process. So, it creates these really cool, dynamic images.”

To Levi all the pictures are important. All deserve to be rescued with the hope that someday they can be reunited with people who will cherish them.

“A lot of people ask me all the time, ‘are you going out to search for these incredible photos like the Kennedy assassination or trying to find these historical moments?’ That's really never been the goal.

“Really the goal is to rescue these seemingly unhistorical moments and put them on a pedestal and say, no, this is American, this is human history documented on a very personal level and put on a pedestal and showcased in a way that personal photos usually aren't.”

And to Levi, that makes all of it worth saving.

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