Lost and forgotten for two generations. This is the story of how I acquired an old Leica film cassette, kept it for some years and then got curious to see what was on the ancient film. The result was a revelation: An unknown family, a clear location and a feeling of sadness that this talented photographer never saw the results of his labour.
The lovely image below came off this roll of film. Yes, it had been overexposed and is grainy, but the composition and framing are splendid. I am not praising or blaming myself, however, as this photograph was taken about 70 years ago, when I was a small child, by an unknown photographer. What I am trying to do here is to contact the family of the photographer and the person who was with them.
Perutz takes a Scheiner
The film had travelled around in a brass Leica FILCA cassette, from owner to owner through the decades. It came to me about five or six years ago with one of my vintage Leicas, of which more anon. I had known that there was a film in the cassette for some time, but it was only recently that I got around to processing it.
It was Perutz film of unknown type but, typically, Perutz black and white film of that era was rated at between 21 and 26 Scheiner (one here for the aficionados) or between 10 and 32 ASA. A new version, rated at 40 ASA was introduced in 1951. Comparable modern ISOs could be around double those numbers because older films had a ‘one-stop safety factor’.
Since the film had been bulk loaded into the FILCA cassette, there is no indication of film speed as the film edge just says “Perutz”. Such old film often loses sensitivity if it has been lying around for a long time.
Many parameters had to be considered. Having discussed the issues with Mella Travers at The Darkroom in Dublin, we decided to give the roll a one-hour stand process with a diluted developer. This involved agitating it for 15 seconds every minute over the hour—which I did while sitting down and munching on Blueberry muffins (the essential ingredient).
The developed roll had 22 exposed frames out of 36, of which about 20 are usable. Not only had the photographer failed to develop the roll, but they also didn’t even manage to finish the course. There were some light leaks on the first few frames where I, and possibly others, had opened the cassette without realising that there was a film inside.
The BMW convertible
The first negative which I scanned was the one showing a mid-1930s BMW convertible (possibly a 303, 309 or a 315—I am sure that car experts will figure it out¹) on a snowy mountain pass. The registration number (AB 52 3287) is more than likely from the American occupation zone in Bavaria, which was current between 1948 and 1956. The second photo of the same car on the right below gave an exact location at La Veduta on the Julier Pass in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
There was an earlier photo, damaged by light leaks, on the film roll which showed the same car parked on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. The picture contains a number of the large late 1940s American cars which were used as taxis in Zurich during the early 1950s
As well as Zurich, the 20 or so viewable negatives show scenery in the Swiss mountains and around the lakes. I have been trying to identify one of the lakes from the steamer shown above and below
I had thought that it might be near Lugano, but it seems that similar steamers are still used today on Lake Como in Italy. So this might be a Swiss roll with a little Italian dessert on the side.
Seeking the family
The object of writing this article is, however, to trace the families of the two people who appear in the images as I would like them to have the photographs. Given their ages at the time there is a very strong possibility that they are no longer with us. I thought long and hard about showing these photos, even after the long passage of time since they were taken, but there seems to be no other option if I am to find out who they are.
The two people are a woman in her late 20s or perhaps around 30 and a man about 10 years older, to my eyes. And they had a little Dachshund with them who also appeared in the Zurich photo.
It is strange to find people you don’t know, in such personal situations in front of a camera, many years after their photographs were taken. I feel more than a little guilty about this as they belong properly to the people in the photos and/or their families.
As I indicated above, there are photos of various scenic spots, but the one that stood out as having identification possibilities is below, showing the young woman and her dog on a street leading to a church.
Given the signs (Gelateria, for instance) it would appear that this street is either in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland or in Italy itself.
[NOTE: Following publication, the town has been identified as Bellagio, northern Italy, The street is Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and the church is the Basilica di San Giacomo. See comments section for further information]
I will leave the photos and move on to the other evidence relating to which camera might have taken these photos and where was that camera distributed to.
The Leica Archives will give out information on the dealer to which a camera was first sent but not the name of the ultimate client. I know that they sometimes have this information and have even seen some old photocopies with this type of data, but with GDPR, it is no longer possible to get this type of data from the Archives.
First of all, before we move on to actual cameras, I can hear readers asking what is a FILCA brass cassette. In the early days 35mm, the film stock did not come in the handy cassettes which we know today, but rather in big tins (possibly because of its cinema background) and it had to be reloaded in the dark into small cassettes before use in the new breed of miniature cameras such as the Leica.
Leica’s solution was the FILCA cassette which, in the early versions, was opened and closed by a claw on the base plate of the camera, operated by opening and closing the ring device marked ‘Auf’ and ‘Zu’ (open/close). The objective was to ensure that the cassette was closed when exposed to the light. This was later replaced with a narrow slit with a felt opening. Below, from left to right are Leica FILCA cassettes types A, B and C.
Here is the very FILCA B in which this Perutz film spent the years. It is shown opened, with some of the film still inserted in the spool. Behind is a silver container with a black felt inner lining in which I had kept it, but I’m not sure that I did not put it in there myself. Incidentally, the canister has the name ‘Tom’ written on the bottom. Whatever about that, it can be seen that the film would have been in a pretty secure location for its 70-year hibernation.
I have received quite a few FILCAs with Leica cameras over the years, but I only recall two of my cameras coming with film in FILCA cassettes. One of the FILCAs was in this box which I received with a Leica IIIa with serial number 157423, shown on the front. The box belongs to another Leica IIIa with serial number 157408 (in collecting you cannot always get everything) and it contained FILCAs, some of which were in the silver canisters with the felt lining mentioned above.
The eagle-eyed will have spotted the writing in the marked spaces on the inside of the lid of the box. These show details of photos taken in Britain, Germany and Sweden in June 1935 and, according to a friend, some of it is written in Swedish. I got the camera and box from Sweden and the ever-ready case for the camera contained a lens cleaning cloth marked ‘Okularium, Optisk Affar, Goteborg, Boras’ in a logo similar to that of Ernst Leitz Wetzlar.
I also recall getting a FILCA B containing film inside this camera which is a III with serial number 172472. However, I recall it had colour film inside it and when I opened a second FILCA in the darkroom I found it had only a small piece of colour film inside it, not a roll.
Archivist apply here
Unfortunately, I tend to be unstructured in the way that I keep my camera, lens and accessory collections and things get moved around and interchanged a lot. I need to employ an archivist and/or a filing clerk. I will, of course, check with the Leica Archives about the first delivery of the two cameras and the camera number on the back of the box, but that will just give me dealers’ names and geographic locations.
All three of these cameras are from 1935 and they could have changed hands several times before the 1950s. There is, of course, no guarantee that the camera used to take these photos was one of the three cameras or, indeed, any other camera in my collection.
That is about all that occurs to me in respect of the 70-year-old mystery. So many questions remain unanswered—such as why was the film never finished? Was this the reason why the roll remained undeveloped, or is there another reason? Was this a borrowed camera, returned to its owner or a dealer with the film inside? Or, Heaven forbid, was the camera, used for the film roll, stolen at some stage?
I would appreciate any help or ideas from the legions of Macfilosians who often come up with great ideas about photographs and photography in general.
¹ The BMW: The experts have spoken. The editor’s old friend Fred Fruth, formerly of BMW and a keen vintage car enthusiast, says that this is a BMW 315 from between 1934 and 1937. It was a 1500 cc straight-six producing 34 horsepower. Fred says that this vehicle sports a lovely but non-standard two-door cabriolet body, although he isn’t sure on this detail. It’s a wonderful vehicle and we have to wonder if it is still being cherished somewhere in the world.
This article was published in September 2020 and since then a lot has happened, including world-wide publicity spearheaded by the BBC and New York Times and including many articles in the German-speaking and Italian press. Check this update article which will put you in the picture as it is viewed from mid-December 2020.