I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs and the idea of a fleeting moment being forever frozen in time. To me, they are like stories with images rather than words, little mysteries to be solved. Where was the photo taken? Who was behind the camera? Who were the people in the shot? What were they thinking at that exact second? Were they happy or sad? Where are they now?
So, I was intrigued when I came across a newspaper article in 2019 about a group of people with an unusual hobby – developing the lost camera films of total strangers. These hobbyists buy undeveloped rolls of film on eBay, at car boot sales, flea markets and house clearances, and then they develop the prints themselves. Some take it quite seriously, spending a lot of time and cash hunting down old film. “Why?” you might ask. The thrill appears to be in the not knowing what the mystery film will reveal. Being the first person to see a photo that not even the photographer has seen. The heart-pounding anticipation of waiting for the image to gradually appear in the developer tray.
The rolls could be completely blank or really boring, or they could provide a snapshot of a long-ago time and place or a sneak peek into someone else’s life. The fun is in finding out whether you’ve purchased treasure or trash. The idea of red-lit darkrooms and dusty cannisters of film and old cameras with half-filled spools might seem old-fashioned, but it’s a hobby that’s apparently bang up to date, with thousands of enthusiasts taking to online forums to share their finds with like-minded fans.
One example is the Forgotten Film forum on the discussion website Reddit. Their most-liked image is a Kodachrome shot from the 1950s showing two suited men and a glamorous woman enjoying drinks and cigarettes in a living room. Other popular pics include a woman posing at an autumn picnic dated 1973 and a group of kids around a summer camp picnic table (year unknown but likely to be the 1950s). Kind of like Instagram but with an old-school twist and without the filters and airbrushing.
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After reading the story, I wanted to give mystery film a go. The problem was that I had no access to a darkroom and no photo-developing skills. Which would mean handing my quarry over to a photo shop, waiting for them to do their thing and hoping for the best. A bit like being a kid in the Eighties all over again, when there were no smartphones or digital cameras, and picking up the prints a week later was the norm. Except this time, I would literally have no idea what I would be collecting.