Incredible: Photographer Discovers and Develops 31 Rolls of WWII Film

Curators’ Corner

Incredible: Photographer Discovers and Develops 31 Rolls of WWII Film

Here’s a story that’s flat-out incredible.

Photographer Levi Bettwieser leads the Rescued Film Project, described on its website as an online archive of images that were captured on film between the 1930s and 1990s. Bettwieser collects and processes undeveloped rolls of film from thrift stores, auctions and donors to revive moments in time that have otherwise been lost. It’s a methodical and ongoing search that was pretty much off the mainstream radar until an unbelievable find.

When a lead contacted Bettwieser in late 2014 about 31 undeveloped rolls of film discovered at an Ohio auction, you can imagine the photographer’s interest.

“Obviously I wanted to know, like, ‘Tell me everything you know about this batch of film. Where did it come from? Photographer? What did you learn when you were there?'” Bettwieser told PRI. “And he had absolutely no information.”

Bettwieser retrieved the film and processed it in his Idaho apartment to uncover a treasure trove of photographs taken by a WWII soldier. The rolls were labeled with various location names, such as “Boston Harbor” and “Lucky Strike Beach,” and the soldier’s identity is completely unknown.

Inspiration overload. First off, in an age where everyone is a photographer and every image is shared instantly with no actual handling required, Bettwieser’s perspective is as fresh as it gets. His mission behind the Rescued Film Project is rooted in a deep respect for the significance of a photograph – “a moment that was intended to be remembered” – and in the case of his discoveries, one that never made it into a photo album or a frame on the wall. Bettwieser seeks to honor forgotten moments and mark their existence in history – you have to love that.

Second, here’s Bettwieser on this cool, casual photo hobby of thrifting for undeveloped film. Finding any film at all is a tough enough task in itself, and then developing it is even tougher. But he somehow manages both, and usually comes up with a lot of obscure images – family gatherings, vacations and things of that nature – that are interesting mostly because they’re old, unique and unknown. It’s an independent, off-the-beaten-path history project. And then one day he hits this historic jackpot of WWII from an unknown soldier’s point of view preserved from more than 70 years ago?? Everything about this is just amazing in every way. Can you imagine?

Bettwieser told PRI that interest in the Rescued Film Project has skyrocketed since releasing the war photos and a video outlining his mindset, the tedious development process that takes place in his kitchen and the moment of anticipation before that first roll is opened. Check it out below, followed by a few of the war images themselves. To view the entire rescued WWII collection, visit the Rescued Film Project website.

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