Salvaging Forgotten Memories With The Rescued Film Project

All images by The Rescued Film Project. Used with permission.

As photographers, one of the greatest pains that many of us will encounter is losing images of once in a lifetime memories. Perhaps you accidentally formatted a memory card, or maybe you left a memory card in a pair of pants that ended up going through the washer and dryer, or your card might have just died of old age. The fear of losing images has come up quite often as of late, with photographers complaining that certain new camera bodies have only a singular memory card slot and are unable to write duplicate copies of priceless images, rendering them helpless with a single point of failure.

While that’s certainly a valid concern for working photographers who require that kind of redundancy, imagine for a moment that you were shooting with a film camera instead of a digital on. What are you going to do if you misplace a roll of film by accident? What if you forgot about a roll inside a camera that you haven’t used in ages? Maybe you exposed a roll prematurely when changing rolls? What about if you found an old roll of film inside a camera that you inherited from a family member? Recently, we got to speak with Levi Bettwieser, founder of The Rescued Film Project, about his efforts to recover images from rolls of film that once were thought to have been lost in the mists of time.

Phoblographer: What was the impetus that led to the creation of the Rescued Film Project?

Levi Bettwieser of The Rescued Film Project: As a film photographer and avid thrift store shopper I would frequent the camera section of second hand stores to see if there were any cameras worth acquiring. After a while I started noticing that many of the cameras still had film in them. Since I was processing my own film, I decided to start buying the cameras and safely removing the film and holding it until I had enough rolls to justify a day of processing. Once I had about 50 rolls, I processed them and was very surprised to see how many still had viable images. So I decided that if I could find that many rolls from just searching in my local area that there must be many, many more rolls around the world in need of rescuing. That’s how the project started.

Phoblographer: Do you work with a team, or is the Rescued Film Project primarily a solo effort? Some of the projects The Rescued Film Project have tackled have been quite daunting.

Levi: It’s primarily a solo effort. I acquire the film, process it, scan it, upload to our website, inform donators of rescued images, and maintain our social media presence with the exception of our Instagram which is run by a good friend. We also commission other film labs around the country when our backlog gets too full and we run low on time.

Phoblographer: What equipment do you and your team use in your efforts to rescue and develop all of the film that people have donated to the project?

Levi: I process all film in my home so I don’t use a full dark room or lab. What I use to process is two Patterson hand inversion tanks which allow me to process up to 10 rolls of 35mm film per batch. I’m working on a video series currently to teach people how to safely and effectively process film in their homes with as little money and equipment as possible. Most of the film that we process is actually purchased, not donated. But to date we’ve had 341 people donate film to our project.  But our film backlog is somewhere over 1,500 rolls.

“We’ve had many rolls disintegrate in our hands when working with them. Also a very common thing is for 120 film to shrink over times so it’s not quite wide enough to fit on the processing reels. “

Phoblographer: What are some of the special considerations that have to be taken into account due to the age and condition of the film that The Rescued Film Project receives?

Levi: Storing old degraded film until processing is very important. We keep it out of light and in cold storage. Also handling old film and getting it onto the processing reels can take a lot of time to practice and get right. But regarding our chemical process, we actually do very little to account for the age or condition of the film. It’s been our experience that because you can’t accurately guess the conditions in which the film was stored regarding exposure to heat, moisture, light, that any attempt to adjust your chemical process will just be guess work. So we prefer to maintain a baseline chemical process based on emulsion type to avoid unknowingly negatively impacting the quality of the image.

Phoblographer: What was the most challenging roll of film that you and your team have had to work with from a technical standpoint?

Levi: This is a tough question because we’ve had so many rolls that were challenging. We’ve had many rolls disintegrate in our hands when working with them.  Also a very common thing is for 120 film to shrink over time so it’s not quite wide enough to fit on the processing reels. We once processed a roll that we thought was C41, but actually ended up being C22 so the emulsion pretty much melted and the image slide off the plastic backing and stuck in the very center compressing the image. But overall there is no exact way to accurately process old film. We often have batches of film that come up completely blank. For me, emotionally, those are the most challenging rolls. I don’t care how difficult a roll is to process as long as we get some kind of images. But the ones that turn out blank are defeating.

Phoblographer: Of all of the film that you have received and rescued, which roll stood out the most to you and impacted you in a way you had not expected?

Levi: This also is an impossible question to answer. We’ve rescued over 35,000 images to date and if every roll we processed ended up having images, that number would be much higher. I’ve been affected by many images for various reasons. I love how degraded film can alter the final image and turn it into something that the photographer never intended. Because of mold and heat and other things, the final image now looks more like a piece of art with layers of texture that help tell a story of what that roll of film has been through over the past 70 years before arriving in my hands. I love images that are busy and have a lot going on with the subject and in the background because I feel like a detective trying to figure out what’s going on, who the person is, and what is being captured in that moment. I try to see all the images we rescue as history. Even if they were only taken 5-10 years ago, I try to look at it as if I’m looking at it in 50 years because all of these images reflect our history.

Phoblographer: What’s next for The Rescued Film Project?

Levi: Because of family and career, my time to work in the project unfortunately right now is lower than it’s ever been. But I’m still actively gathering film for processing. So next steps are to continue to process and scan images while hopefully generating a revenue stream that will allow us to create a more robust web-experience for others to view the entire archive and begin to help researching the images and reconnecting them.

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You can stay up to date with what The Rescued Film Project is working on over at their website.