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Rediscovered memories on forgotten rolls of film: The Lost Rolls America project displays its trove

Rediscovered memories on forgotten rolls of film: The Lost Rolls America project displays its trove
California's Monterey Bay in 1998 or ’99. Gabriel Berent took the photo, then lost track of the film. The image was recovered through the Lost Rolls America project. (Gabriel Berent/Lost Rolls America)

Slightly faded and scratched, the image of a sailboat in Monterey Bay looks like countless vacation photos that might be boxed in the attic or sandwiched between pages of a scrapbook. The boat sits slightly off-center in the frame, its significance a mystery.

The photographer might have explained it — but the film was misplaced at some point and Gabriel Berent had to wait almost 20 years to see that image and feel the flood of memories it evoked: "I think of being a long-lost adventurer about to set sail into the great beyond," he wrote when he was finally able to inspect his work. The photograph of that boat, sailing away to destinations unknown, made him feel "free without a care in the world."

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Berent had heard about a project whose organizers were asking Americans to dig through their drawers and closets to find undeveloped rolls of film and send them in to be processed. Now his image is part of a national archive — christened Lost Rolls America — that includes hundreds rescued from obscurity. Some of them will be on view in a free exhibit at the Line Hotel in Koreatown through Sunday displayed inside and outside a "vintage-style" Airstream — in picture frames, journals and photo albums that, the organizers hope, will evoke a feeling of Americana.

"One of the things that I find quite remarkable is the fact that you [didn't] see the image immediately," says Lauren Walsh, the project director who is also the director of the photojournalism lab at NYU's Gallatin School. "In some cases, the time gap is 30 or 40 years ago. There's something magical about having a glimpse of your past brought back to you."

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The archive is an outgrowth of a 2015 book, "The Lost Rolls," by photojournalist Ron Haviv, who filled its pages with images processed from more than 200 of his own rediscovered rolls of analog film.

"What began as a fun book project turned out to be something more," says Haviv, whose work — he has covered more than 25 conflicts worldwide in the last three decades — has been featured in critically acclaimed collections of photography and in numerous museums and galleries.

"When I did the book tour, I would talk about those experiences and I would ask the audience, 'How many of you have a canister of film that was never developed?' At least 50% of the people, if not more, said they had [undeveloped] film ... but they'd moved on to digital cameras."

Friends and acquaintances, especially those whose parents had passed away, had similar stories: No one knew what to do with newly discovered rolls of film that had been shot and squirreled away, their purpose long forgotten.

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"I realized there were these memories locked away in these canisters that were going to disappear," Haviv says. A national archive could, at the very least, save a small percentage of them.

The experience of encountering an image — never seen before — allows participants to fill in the details of a barely remembered event or provide a new prism through which to view the past or create an entirely new memory.

But Haviv and Walsh hope the archive — and the exhibit at the Line — will be more than a collection of individual stories.

"The project is speaking about the American experience and showing, today, when we feel we are so divided politically, that we are more alike than different. It crosses race. It crosses class," Haviv says. Because the project revisits the past, the Lost Rolls America website says, it also "encourages contemplation of how the present and future will be remembered."

Share the memories

To participate in the project, participants sent in a "lost" roll, and it was developed and scanned (by Fujifilm, a project sponsor) for free. Images were uploaded to a secure website where entrants, most of whom were not professional photographers, could view them, then select a favorite to include in the archive.

Family time in the mid-1980s. A Thanksgiving weekend scene in Cleveland among aunt, nephew and a very early electronic toy.
Family time in the mid-1980s. A Thanksgiving weekend scene in Cleveland among aunt, nephew and a very early electronic toy. (Jeffrey Levin / Lost Rolls America)

In addition, they were asked to fill out a form that asked some of the basics — where and when the photo was taken — as well as questions such as "How does this old photo make you feel?" and "What kind of memories does this photo bring back" and "How do you think others will respond to this photo?"

The website currently features more than 350 images of vacations, landscapes, celebrations and a range of random, intimate moments. Some of the photographs look as though they were framed by artists. Others look as if they are the work of people with more enthusiasm than skill — but memory, rather than workmanship, is the star of the show.

The exhibit is one of many included in the ambitious schedule of Month of Photography Los Angeles, which is sponsored by the Lucie Foundation, a nonprofit that works to promote photography, honor master photographers and cultivate new talent.

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"What Ron [Haviv] has done is really significant," says Cat Jimenez, a photographer, co-founder of Month of Photography Los Angeles and executive director of the Lucie Foundation.

"With digital tech taking over the world, film is, essentially, going out of business." "Lost Rolls America," Jimenez adds, is "mixing the beauty of analog film with the benefits of digital technology. [Haviv] is capturing a lot of memories across the Unites States. It's a collective, conscious archive."

News accounts of the rapid decline of film photography are plentiful, but despite the ascendancy of all things digital, film photography — like vinyl records — continues to attract a small but enthusiastic fan base. A report in Time magazine last year stated that companies such as Kodak and Fujifilm have been "experiencing a comeback," fueled by "a new generation of practitioners who grew up with digital but have begun dabbling in film."

High schools and colleges are experiencing a small but growing interest in film photography, scheduling classes for students interested in a "vintage" art. Walsh, whose NYU classes focus on the history of photography, contemporary visual culture, war reportage and journalistic ethics, is working to develop a Lost Rolls curriculum for high school students.

In the meantime, fans of film photography continue to champion the craft — and the power of newly discovered undeveloped film.

Last year, Lizzy Acker of the Portland Oregonian wrote about a photographer named Kati Dimoff who checks old cameras at Goodwill shops for undeveloped rolls of film. One of them yielded images of plumes of smoke and detritus following the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 — and a photo of a young couple flanking an older woman holding a baby. Thirty-seven years after the image was taken, Mel Purvis of Bend, Ore., recognized himself in the photograph and contacted the reporter to let her know the film probably came from his grandmother's camera.

Boise-based photographer Levi Bettwieser created the Rescued Film Project in 2013, and it made headlines a couple of years later after he acquired and developed several rolls of film that had been shot during World War II. Many of images show large groups of soldiers on ships or waiting for train transport or walking out of a church. The age and anonymity of many of the images contributes to a feeling of lost moments in time. "We really look at every roll of film as if it's the photographers' mark in history," he says in a video that details his project.

In Germany after World War II, Valentina Zavarin, far left, packs to leave for America — “such excitement and playful joy after such a tumultuous time.”
In Germany after World War II, Valentina Zavarin, far left, packs to leave for America — “such excitement and playful joy after such a tumultuous time.” (Valentina Zavarin / Lost Rolls America)

History — and the way we sometimes rewrite it — is also of interest to the Lost Rolls America organizers. Haviv says one image in the Lost Rolls archive was taken by a refugee in Germany a few years after WWII. There are four people in the frame, smiling and standing amid a series of packing crates behind a truck; their joy feels infectious.

The woman who submitted the film and filled out the questionnaire explains that she was "leaving for America" and added, "I almost fell out of my chair when I saw these images. Really a small miracle." In response to the final question — "How do you think others will respond to this photo?" — she wrote, "Surprised that there was such excitement and playful joy after such a tumultuous time, to start a new life."

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The Lost Rolls America exhibit will be open at the Line Hotel, 3515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., 6-10 p.m. April 12, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. April 13, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. April 14 and 15. Free. Haviv and Walsh are scheduled to talk about the project at the hotel 4-5 p.m. April 15. Tickets for the talk are $15 at lostrollsamerica.eventbrite.com. For a full schedule of Month of Photography Los Angeles events — including more talks and exhibits at the Line Hotel — go to www.monthofphotography.com/calendar.

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