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Swiss Roll: Hidden for 70 years, these photographs were recovered from an ancient Leica film cassette

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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

Swiss scenery

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]

FILCAs united

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.

Origins

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 car again, parked in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The American cars used as taxis help date the whole series of images.

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, possibly from Weinmann, 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.

Read more from William Fagan

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46 COMMENTS

    • Thanks Dunk. I put the story up there myself in the hope that photo historians might be able to to help. There may be other wider distribution later this week and I will put up a link or links as that happens.

      William

    • Thanks, Pit. I believe you are correct about the De Soto being from 1949. I believe the Peugeot could be from 1949 or 1950, certainly pre 1953 when the filler cap, which is visible here, was put under a filler cap. I believe that this trip was made in the very early 1950s, possibly between 1950 and 1952. By about 1954-55 newer European cars had started to appear on the streets of Zurich based on photos that I have seen. And the Bisbino steamer (made 1907) on Lake Como is in its pre-1956 state.

      This means that the ‘Otto’ disappearing in Russia in WWII story has to be fanciful. The man looks old enough to have been involved in WWII, but the woman would probably have been a child/minor prior to the war. The death of one or other of the people is one possible explanation for the unfinished/undeveloped roll of film, but there are many other possible explanations. I would like to be factual rather than speculative or fictional in respect of this.

      William

      • Yes William, mine it’s only a fantasy story circling around the reason of undeveloped film.
        Remaining in factual thinghs you are lucky to have a clear license plate evidence. In this case the most actual action you could do is searching for the car owner. In my camera repair activity, undeveloped film occurrs very often, one of the reasons is the owner’s death, or the camera didn’t rewind and was never retired from the repair shop for the same reason. But very often in the 50’s people switched to the early automatic (or preset) cameras without knowing or considering the value of their previous camera, sometimes inherithed from their parents. Leica wasn’t a point and shot family camera, but a skilled photographer camera, and in the 50’s people wanted a simple and reliable camera that could be used by every family member during a trip.
        At the moment I’m servicing a 1970 Canon Autozoom Super 8 movie camera with undeveloped film inside.

        • There are a few other technical aspects I did not mention. Firstly, the roll of film was wound into the cassette when I got it. The camera base plate closes the FILCA when the base plate is opened, but it does not automatically rewind the film. So the film was rewound after 22 exposures had been made. The first few frames have light leak damage, probably as a result of later opening by myself and others, but that improves as the roll goes on and it disappears after frame 5. The roll of film was very tightly wound and has actually 38 frames on it. It would have been bulk loaded into the cassette from a tin or packet of bulk film. This looks like the beginning of a new tin or packet. The last frame exposed was No 22, which is the picture of the young woman sitting in front a lake, which is shown above. There is nothing after that and it seems that the roll of film was rewound after that frame had been taken, but how long after is not clear, but the roll was clearly rewound while it was still in the camera. The light leaks on the first five frames clearly match the shape of the opening on the FILCA. I deliberately left these technical details out as they might confuse an audience not familiar with film rolls and cassettes.

          William

  1. Hi Mike,
    my grannies shot a lot in the 30′-40′-50′ I’ve hundred of photos quite similar. Looking at dresses they looks at the end of the 30’s, look at the large revere of the man jacket and the squared shoulder of the white lady’s jacket. Lady’s suit pattern quite similar (and typical) to my granny in the early 40’s. But a woman perspective could be better.
    Just for information the steamer Bisbino in the photo has perfect vertical bow while in refurbishing of 1956 it was angled like modern ship.
    About license plate you could see :

    https://vorkriegs-klassiker-rundschau.blog/bildergalerie-nach-marken-3/bmw-automobile/

    in wich some similar plate numbering looks shooted in the 30′ -40’s rather than 50’s but an expert could tell about and I’m open to any solution.

    • Thanks, Pit. I have known all along that this was a mid 1930s BMW cabriolet with a Bavarian registration plate. Recent information from a retired top ranking manager at BMW has confirmed that it was a BMW 315. I had hinted that this might make a nice novel or piece of theatre, but the Otto/Helga/Eastern front story does not hold together. These are post-war pictures. I have mentioned in the article that one of the photographs on the same roll of film clearly shows the BMW 315 and the young woman and the dachshund on Banhofstrasse in Zurich with post-war American cars around them being used as taxis. I had decided to leave the photo out of the article as it has a large bright strip down the middle, probably caused by a light leak. I have given this photo to Mike and I have asked whether this photo can now be inserted here at this stage. Given the evidence available about the Bisbino it would seem that the photos were taken between about 1950 and 1956, with the likelihood being that they were taken closer to the former than the latter. Photos from Zurich in the mid 1950s show more modern post war cars such as Mercedes being used as taxis.

      Still, the names ‘Otto and Helga’ are good ones for the couple until we find out their real names. Also the theory of the photographer (‘Otto’) passing away might be one of the many possible explanations for the fact that the roll was never finished, but, as of now, that is unproven.

      William

  2. Steamer in the photo is “BISBINO”, sistership of “BARADELLO” both launched in 1907, owned by “Lariana Navigation Company” operating on Como lake where Bellagio is.
    “Bisbino” still exist today, it was refurbished and slightly modified in 1956, stopped in 1982. Refurbished in 1997 by the new owner to the original shape, today it’s a real attraction on the Como lake for it’s vintage style.

    • Thanks for that, Pit. I had seen photos of some of the Como Steamers, but they seemed to have been somewhat modified compared to the one in the photos.

      William

      • Hi William, just a trace for your rollfilm mistery. The people in the photos are Otto and Helga. Looking at your photos and my grannies similar photo album, it’s evident that Otto and Helga come in Italy with their car and Leica to spend their “honeymoon” in Como lake (just like my granny). They shot several rollfilm, the last not completed remained in the camera at their return in Germany, ready for the next trip. But there was no more trips, destiny decided differently for them. Some weeks later Otto received a Reich communication for military conscription and was sent in Russia. A one way ticket.
        He never came back, declared “lost in battle”, his body was never found. At the end of the war Helga never give up to the Otto’s death and started searching him in Russia basing on his last letters .
        Otto was near the death for icing when he was saved by a russian farmer girl who hidden him. This girl represented his only chance to survive and his mind turned out to cancel his previous life as as surviving technique. A new life, a new wife and a daughter.
        After deep research, asking people by people on the road, Helga met German soldiers that remained in Russia and prefer to be forgotten by everyone. Now they’re Russian.
        Helga finally found the Russian girl and Otto’s daughter understanding the situation. Coming back desperately to the railway station, she met Otto leaving the train she was waiting for. He was coming back home from the factory. His mind sudenly switch out to the old love, but he explained what he have been trough in this terrible war in the ice. “This is the bad of the war” he said, “the war change the people…not only kill them”.
        Helga came back in Germany without talkin anyone about her researching result. Without conviction married another man, sold their beloved BMW 315 she cured for years and the Leica remained in the drawer not being able to use it, neither his husband. At the death of Helga, in the nineties, their relatives gave all her goods (Leica included) to a junk market.

        • I am sure William will reply to all this fascinating detail. But I am still confused over the car registration plate which seems to date the photos to the early 50s. From what you say above, the photographs were taken before the war? If so, I can’t reconcile that with the number plate which, I assume would have started with II (for Bavaria) if it had been before the war. It also seems to me that the fashions are more ‘fifties than ‘thirties.

          On a different tack, it did cross my mind that the couple could well have been on honeymoon and your comment is therefore interesting.

  3. In reply to this point from George Appletree

    “I’d rather write a novel. If all the thing had some thrill, whatever your reason you’ll finally make it disappear. Imagine what if every street photograph you see from HCB or any other you wonder who’s this one, what car is that etc.”

    I am not doing this for a thrill. Something unexpected turned up in something which I own and indeed the roll of film may also have been shot on a camera which I own. So there is relevant provenance for me there already. This is not like looking at a random picture by HCB, although I do admit to looking carefully at a photograph of French nuns which he took in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin in the early 1950s as they were always sitting in that exact location when my father brought me into the park on most Sunday mornings at around that time. Again, there was a relevant connection there.

    In this case, these images would not have been seen if I had not developed the roll of film 70 years later. I now have something more than just a physical roll of film. Images such as these usually mean something to the people involved and to their families. Leaving aside the mystery of why the roll of film was never developed, I hope that it might be possible to unite the images with the people to whom these might mean something.

    The relevance of writing a novel escapes me. If I wanted to write a novel, I would write a novel. As it is, I write about other things and I get great enjoyment out of this and so do other people, at least that is what they tell me.

    William

  4. This wonderful story reminded me of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “The Crystal Trench” with reference to glaciers, time, and photography.
    Of the few Leica cameras I have, one is from 1938 and had an original roll of unexposed film in it when it was taken out of a trunk and purchased from the estate by an acquaintance in the late 1970s. He shot 1-2 rolls before sell it to me.

    • Thanks Tom. It is the air of mystery that fascinates, particularly as to why the roll of film was not developed for so long. Hitchcock also made a film called Rear Window in 1954 which featured James Stewart using a German made Exakta camera with the camera name blanked out.

      William

  5. the car in the photo is a BMW 315 cabrio-limousine built in 1934-1936, license plate is from Germany, AB letters indicate district main town of registration “Aschaffenburg” in Bayern State.
    AB district cover 31 sub-towns. These cars were sold for the high price of 3.950 Reichsmark in 1934, they were used in racing too. It is possible to search in German Automotive registration Archive for Chronology of the owners of this car. Ask to a german old timer cars expert.

    • Thanks Pit for this very useful information. I will search for this tomorrow and if I do not succeed I will ask someone in Germany to do it for me. Mike, our editor, also has a lot of contacts in Germany.

      William

    • Further to my earlier reply, I think it is wrong to suggest AB represents Aschaffenburg. According to my research (which is mentioned in the article) it stands for Amerikanische (Zone) Bayern and pre-dates the current system.

  6. Brilliant, William. I absolutely love these sorts of finds/stories. The “lost for decades” aspect adds a nostalgic tinge to the story beyond “just” the old locations actually shown, which are nostalgic enough on their own

    There is a man online – Jack Sharp photographs if I recall – who inherited thousands of his grandfather’s unseen negatives and is slowly scanning and publishing them in a similar vein. Well worth a look.

    It makes me wonder. In 100 years from now, will someone declare that they’ve found an ancient SD card and look what Melbourne / London/ Delhi etc looked like back then?! Look at the people!? I’m not sure. And will the outright image quality negate that feeling of age and era? Is it actually the flaws in the tech that adds the romanticism?

    I won’t be around to know. It’s a question reserved for my children’s grandchildren, perhaps.

    • Thanks Jason. In this case the photos were locked up in a brass sarcophagus, provided by Ernst Leitz and Co, for about 70 years until they were released by development on 6th August 2020. I will probably have a few prints made as all I have now are scans and there is worry these days that electronically held data may not last as long as the paper based kind. A real mystery story that is still unfolding. I will look for those Jack Sharp photos which you mention.

      William

  7. Thanks Franco. That is definitely it. Some of the railings and shutters have not changed in 70 years. I suspected that the steamers were from Lake Como as they are still the same type and their funnels are painted the same way. Definitely an Italian dessert was available at the Gelateria on the left, but that seems to have closed today.

    I am most grateful for this.

    William

  8. What an amazing article and images. Can’t help you with identifying places. On seeing the last shot I thought of the city of Yvoire on French side of the shore of Lac Leman. The bell tower looks very similar but not the rest unfortunately. Your images reminds me of how pleasant it is to dig through old family images. Thanks

    • Thanks Jean. The credit must go to the photographer and that FILCA cassette for preserving the film for 70 years and my friend Mella Travers for coming up with just the right amount of development time for a 70 year old film of unknown ‘ISO’. I will have a look at Yvoire and Lac Leman on Google Maps and see if I can recognise anything.

      William

  9. YOU SIR, VOTED FOR YOU, ARE HARRY HOUDINI AND SHERLOCK HOLMES , with your quest for identification of photos, reincarnated. I just sorry I can’t help in task of ID. Thank you.

    • Thanks John and thanks for the vote. The real Harry Houdini trick here was the film surviving in the brass cassette for 70 year and then managing to escape in the darkroom. I am working on a number of lines of enquiry, as the police might say, and I will reveal details here as our enquiry proceeds. I want to thank Mike for publishing this article as it gives me something substantial to point to as the enquiry proceeds.

      William

  10. Although I am in no way a collector I enjoyed this trip into the past William. I think you did a good job in bringing the film into life again and wish you success in your search. In a family album I have photos of a football team’s trip to Europe just after the end of the First World War and it fascinates me to see such memories lasting through the decades.

    • Thanks Kevin. Family photographs are just as important to the families and friends of the subjects in the photographs as are press or ‘art’ photographs. The making of images of family or friends or of places which we visit means a lot to us all. That is why I believe that the families of the people in these photos should be reunited with the images. At the Gallery of Photography, Ireland we had a ‘Family Album’ project some years ago in which we invited people to send in old photographs of their family members and we were overwhelmed by the response and the willingness of people to have photographs of their relatives displayed in our gallery. The project went international and last year we published an Irish American Family Album and an Irish Canadian Family Album is also planned. All of these things are as much at the heart of photography as is the work of, say, the Magnum photographers. I know that great Magnum photographers like Cartier Bresson or Constantine Manos would agree (or have agreed) with this.

      William

    • Thanks George Appletree. I hope that you enjoyed the article. I identified that location about a month ago when I developed the photographs and I used Google Search and Maps. The locations are only supplementary information, however. This trip was taken about 70 years ago by people who are probably no longer with us, so the itinerary which they took may not be in anyone’s memory. The real point here, as I stressed in the article, is to identify the people and to reunite their families with these images.

      William

        • Thanks. That is probably part of the mystery here. I could have suggested several other reasons as to why the photographs were never developed or discussed what I thought about the photos apart from the lovely image at the top of the article, but I wanted to treat this sensitively as I don’t know anything about the people other than where they were. I was not the photographer here, but this roll of film fell into my hands. There are interesting technical points here, but the important issues are human. They always are.

          William

    • Thanks Mike P. Yes, the photos do seem to be reaching out to us from the mists of time. Post-war and pre-mass tourism Europe must have been less crowded like that and if you lived in the right place and had a car you would have been able to travel around and see many places in comfort compared to our pre-Covid world. Will it ever get like this again?

      Sebald is a good comparison not only in connection with the content of his writing, but he was born and lived in Southern Bavaria not far from Switzerland. Seeing the photos of Zurich (not shown in the article) reminded me that the Irish writer James Joyce had lived there and, indeed, died there in 1941. I have already suggested to a few people that this story might even form the basis for a short story or play. Let’s see what the second chapter/act reveals.

      William

    • Thanks Dunk. I will try that. I am going to give this article a wide distribution. I have not heard back from the Leica Archives yet, but I might just send them the whole article. It really would be nice to unite the families of the people in the photos with these images 70 years later.

      William

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