Back to the Future

Copyright 1991, Tom R. Halfhill

[ 1950s BUICK IN SNOW ]

Buick in a blizzard: the neo-Gothic chrome grill on this behemoth probably weighs more than one of today's subcompact cars. This photograph was lost on a roll of undeveloped film for 35 years!

While waiting in line at a movie theater recently, I noticed that some children in front of me were fascinated by a bronze plaque riveted to the sidewalk. The plaque marked the location of a time capsule, buried beneath the concrete in 1966 and scheduled to be opened in 2016.

"What's a time capsule?" one of the kids asked her father.

"It's like a treasure chest that holds things from the past," explained the parent. "When it's dug up, we'll find out what's inside. It probably contains lots of things, like old newspapers and records and pictures."

"Wow!" said the girl. "I can't wait!"

I knew just how she felt. Coincidentally, only a few weeks before, I had opened up a time capsule that contained nearly three dozen fascinating old photographs. But this was a very unusual "time capsule"—an undeveloped roll of film that my father shot in 1955 and then lost for 35 years.

When I anxiously developed the elderly film in my 1990 darkroom—not even knowing for sure if the roll was exposed—I discovered a treasure trove of long-lost images. There was a picture of dad's former boss (now deceased) reading a copy of Look magazine (also deceased) with a cover story on Lucille Ball and Desi dad's old Buick, the car in which he and my mother took their honeymoon in 1954...a group of wide-eyed men at a car show, ogling both a 1956 Thunderbird convertible and a lovely blonde model in elbow-length white gloves...and a candid snapshot of my mother in the kitchen, pregnant with me.

Lost & Found

Now, we've all heard how we're supposed to get our film developed as soon as possible after shooting it. And we've also been told how extreme temperatures can easily ruin exposed but undeveloped film. So what kind of film could survive for 35 years under the worst conditions imaginable and still yield prints of surprisingly high quality?

The film was British-made Ilford HP3 Hypersensitive, a long-ago forerunner to today's Ilford HP5 Plus. Judging from the evidence I later pieced together, it was exposed by my father in Akron, Ohio, during early 1955. After he removed the film from his German-made Practika camera, he evidently misplaced it in his basement darkroom. It sat there for 13 years.

In 1968, we moved from our house in the city to a farm in the country. Everything in the darkroom was packed into boxes, and one of those sealed boxes was misplaced in the back room of an unheated horse barn. There it rested, completely forgotten, through 22 years of subzero northern Ohio winters and torrid summers, enduring innumerable freezes and thaws.

In early 1990, my dad, now retired, was cleaning out the barn in preparation for his move to North Carolina. He discovered the misplaced box and opened it up. Inside, among other things, were piles of 4x5-inch negatives he made during the 1950s and three Kodak 35mm film cans. The cans caught his attention because they aren't anything like the plastic 35mm film cans made today. They're all metal, painted yellow with screw-on blue caps. Thinking I might like to have the cans as a novelty, he gave them to me during a visit.

When I got home, I made another discovery—the cans weren't empty. Two of them contained empty 35mm film cassettes. The third contained a cassette that felt as if it held film. Was it exposed? I wasn't sure. The printed label on the cassette read, "Ilford HP3 ASA 250."

Although this roll of film later turned out to be older than I am, I recognized the HP3 label instantly. For one thing, I've used Ilford black-and-white films for many years, starting with HP4 in the 1970s and continuing with HP5 and HP5 Plus to the present day. It wouldn't take much figuring to conclude that HP3 preceded HP4.

But besides that, I'm largely a self-taught photographer, and when I got serious with the hobby as a teenager, I read my way through a massive pile of old photography magazines that my dad had stored in the barn. (The same barn where the film was lost all those years, incidentally.) Because those magazines dated from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, I learned a lot about old cameras, old techniques, and old films.

Examined with a magnifier, this long-lost image reveals the man is reading a copy of Look magazine with a cover story on Lucy and Desi Arnaz.

After a little research, I found that HP3 Hypersensitive was the third in the HP series of high-speed black-and-white films made by Ilford. The original HP, rated at ASA 160, was introduced in 1935. It was succeeded by HP2 (rated at ASA 200) in 1938, and then by HP3 (boosted again to ASA 250) in 1941. HP3 was made until 1960, when Ilford replaced it with HP4, rated at ASA 400. In turn, HP5 was introduced in 1976, followed by today's HP5 Plus in 1989.

Strange Developments

My passing familiarity with HP3 gave me some clues about how to develop it. I estimated that the film was approximately 30 years old, and I knew it was a high-speed, thick-emulsion film that would require a fair amount of development, even before allowing for its old age.

But frankly, I was skeptical. This film, I knew, had been alternately freezing and cooking for at least 22 years in a dusty horse barn. And before that it was lost in a basement. It seemed impossible that any images could be salvaged—if indeed the film was even exposed. For all I knew at the time, it was blank. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

Since I had no idea how much development the film needed, the logical approach was to develop by inspection. Unfortunately, my darkroom isn't equipped with the special dark green safelight required for developing panchromatic black-and-white films by inspection. I prefer to develop my film using the time-temperature technique, partly because I believe it's more consistent, and also because (like many people) I have a difficult time judging the proper density of half-developed film by the very dim glow of a dark green safelight. So I arrived at the development time by guessing.

It was an educated guess, however. Taking into account the thick emulsions of high-speed films and the approximate age of this particular roll, I decided to develop it in my favorite soup for exactly twice the time I'd give a roll of HP5 Plus. This worked out to 15 minutes at 68 degrees Fahrenheit in Kodak T-Max Film Developer.

For good luck, I loaded the film onto a stainless-steel Nikkor developing reel that my dad used back in the 1950s. (Science sometimes works better with a little help from superstition.) Although I'm quite adept with stainless-steel developing reels, this roll of film took an unusually long time to load because it was incredibly stiff and curly. (As you would be, if you spent more than three decades tightly wound on a spool inside a 35mm film cassette.)

Opening the Time Capsule

When the film was developed and fixed, I gingerly pulled a short length from the still-dripping reel. Imagine my elation when I discovered that not only did the roll contain nearly three dozen pictures, but that my estimated development time had yielded nearly perfect negatives.

Well, sort-of-perfect negatives. They showed a fairly heavy base fog (not surprising, in view of the film's age and storage history); the first few frames were slightly marred, probably as a result of my struggles to wind the fragile film onto the developing reel; and the last few frames appeared to be slightly damaged by some kind of fungus. But all things considered, the results were remarkable.

Some things never change. Are the men at this car show staring at the '56 T-Bird or the white-gloved blonde?

At this moment, of course, I still didn't know the exact age of the film or the subjects of the pictures. But I realized I had stumbled onto a fascinating time capsule.

Fascination turned to astonishment as I examined the negatives with a magnifier. I was searching for obscure clues that might reveal the exact age of the photographs, but it turned out that I didn't need to make deductions based on obscure clues. Amazingly, one frame on the roll was a close-up picture of a car license plate—"Ohio 1955"—almost as if the film were meant to be a time capsule.

The surprises continued after I made a contact sheet and studied the images more closely. There was a huge, black steam locomotive rushing by on a railroad track...a young man polishing a mid-1950s Cadillac dad's Buick, which a few months later carried me home from the hospital after my birth...and my mom, fixing breakfast on a sunny morning that preceded the dawn of my own life.

[ MY MOM ]
This young newlywed, caught unaware while fixing breakfast, had to wait 35 years to see how the picture turned out. Her son, unborn when her husband snapped this candid in 1955, developed the film in 1990.

Until someone invents a time machine that gives us a doorway into the past, perhaps the next best thing is a window into the past—a camera.

(My thanks to Barry Sinclair of Ilford Photo Corp. for his assistance in researching this article.)


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