WORDS BY JACKSON CARIGNAN '16
PICTURES BY RESCUED FILM PROJECT
While moving some things out of a storage unit recently, I found a couple of old photos of a family I’d never met and a location I’d never been to. I felt as though I’d looked into a snapshot of someone’s memory, and immediately wanted to investigate. Levi Bettwieser encounters this everyday. Bettwieser is the founder of the Rescued Film Project, a Boise based initiative that processes old and forgotten rolls of film. He has processed nearly 5,500 rolls of other people’s lives. The project has only been publicly active for six months, but after Bettwieser shared a video of himself processing film rolls from World War II, it has gotten quite a bit of attention. Since then, there’s been a lot more interest in Bettwieser’s project.
“People take photos of drugs, but never anything too crazy. I’ve never had to filter what I process,” Bettwieser tells me in his studio on the south side of Boise, when I interviewed him back in December. His studio is a small home-office filled with every type of film camera imaginable and mountains of unprocessed film. “There’s nothing I won’t publish. I don’t want any ‘control ‘over it. There is no censorship involved,” he says. “That being said, I haven’t found anything weird. It’s really just moments people want to remember. It’s interesting, people just take photos of happy moments or sad moments, funerals, birthday parties, hangouts, or vacations.”
Bettwieser receives submissions of unprocessed film from around the world, as well as purchasing rolls from estate sales and thrift stores. He says, “There’s 100% anonymity when people take photos nowadays. No one has to process them; back then people knew someone was looking at their images. So there is a checks-and-balances to it.”
If this project seems eerily like Robin Williams' character in One-Hour Photo, the film that Bettwieser receives diminishes the voyeuristic aspect of the project. “Sometimes I’ll get a roll with only one photo, so there’s an interesting anthropological way of trying to piece together how these photos came about.” He tells me the objective of the project isn’t so much to ogle at people’s personal lives, but rather to reconnect the photographs with the people who took them.
All the same, there is a voyeuristic quality, in both the original images, and in the Rescued Film Project’s work. “This was a photo from a series of rolls of a peeping tom, he would take photos of these girls from his window in New York,” Bettwieser says. “I have 30 photos of one woman standing on a stoop. And it makes me curious, is he an investigative journalist? A cop? Or just weird?”
Bettwieser became interested in digital photography when he was 19. Soon after, he wanted to differentiate himself from others who do portrait and fashion photography and began buying film cameras from thrift shops around the Boise area. “Every once-in-a-while I would run across a camera that had film in it. Once I started developing my own film, I would develop these rolls too. It began as mainly things taken from around the city.” As his interest gravitated towards rescuing, Bettwieser began scouring estate sales and online auctions. “You can get film cheap. People are just trying to off-load film that they find, because it’s extra money.”
This photograph came from a collection of 60 rolls of one family. Most are images of vacations and birthday parties. From a huge collection such as this, the randomness of the website allows him to only show one or two photos. In that way, he has large curatorial power. “What makes the project unique is that it’s tough to tell what people are going to connect with,” Bettwieser says. “You never know what image is going to appeal to a person. No idea what to put in a gallery. What makes it unique is how you assemble them.”
"This was from a roll where there were four photos of a woman with scars from a fight or dog-attack, but the rest of the roll was just photos from a birthday party. You just have tiny snippets of peoples lives.” These tiny snippets represent the private and public aspect of the images Bettwieser deals with, as most were never meant for an internet audience. Families take photos of important moments and when they stray from the typical birthday parties and vacations, it can feel like you’re treading into uncharted territory by viewing them.
“These ones were from a roll of this white-trash family I like to call ‘The Smiths’ because I have no idea who they are. But they all seem really happy and care about each other, however that is expressed.”
Some of the photos seemed more processed or retouched than others. I ask Bettwieser how he goes about restoring them. “I do minimal retouching to a thin negative. Color film doesn’t hold up as well as black and white. Often times a black white roll from the 40’s will turn out clearer than a color roll from the 70’s. I usually just do minor tweaks, like correcting dust that might have been on the scanner. If I get a photo with mold on it, it’s now a part of that picture. It may have been in various climates or places. Natural alteration tells the story of the photo.” These natural alterations are unique in an era where people have the ability to put any desired effect on a photo they want and something Bettwieser actively seeks out, because they more actively display the projects mission.
When I ask him what is next for the project, Bettwieser tells me he has some gallery shows coming up, including one at the Ochi Gallery for the Sunvalley Film Festival in March. “I want to do it like how I’m doing the Tumblr, where I can assemble based on theme, rolls, or just put up the ones I like,” he says. “Right now I have about 400-600 rolls of film to process. Fifteen hours of processing can give you about 50 rolls normally, but with the mixed mediums, most of this film isn’t even manufactured anymore. So it’s a process to try and find the right chemicals and steps."
"A friend of mine was remarked 'Aren’t all photos vintage photos?'" It was a joke at the time, but the eras that Bettwieser is able to span within a single aesthetic narrative are remarkable. Looking in on someone’s life through these photographs feels weird, primarily because you feel a sense of nostalgia for something you never experienced. They are fleeting moments in another life that passed within the blink of a shutter.
Check out the website for more of the Rescued Film Project’s photographs. If you want to submit film, it’s free to process - all that they ask is that you give them permission to put it on the web.
And check out www.zippymorocco.wordpress.com for more from your boy Jackson Carignan.