These Photographs Would Die Without Him

Levi Bettwieser buys old cameras not for the camera itself, but for what’s inside: undeveloped film. Now he’s archiving forgotten moments from the 1920s on.

Levi Bettwieser calls himself a camera addict. The 28-year-old full-time video producer and freelance portrait photographer shoots with any of the 14 cameras in his arsenal, all but one of them relying on film. They have names like Bender, Graflex, Hasselblad, Canon, Mamiya, and Globuscope. Bettwieser started collecting cameras from thrift shops and estate sales years ago, popping them open to discover spent rolls of film inside.

“When you buy old cameras, you see film inside all the time. But I didn’t honestly put that much thought into it. You get a camera and notice there’s a roll of film and then you open the camera and the film is worthless after being exposed to the light,” he said.

It was after Eric Bower—a friend and an audio engineer—told Bettwieser he’d been recovering old answering machine tapes from thrift stores in order to archive, that Bettwieser decided to be a little more careful with the undeveloped snapshots. At some point, his curiosity got the best of him and he decided to develop the lost images himself. To catalog the process, he started what he calls the Rescued Film Project, uncovering photographs taken by strangers, otherwise lost to time.

“I’d buy seven or eight cameras, take them home, and open them up in my darkroom,” he said. “I’d pull the film out, wind it up, and put it in batches. As soon as I got a batch big enough for my first one, I just developed it. And I just saw the range of film on there. I got a range of images. I got hooked.”

Bettwieser started buying lots of unexposed film off of eBay. He currently has around 100 rolls of “modern” film (standard 35mm color) from the 1970s to the present, processed and scanned, and another 60 or so older (1920s-60s) rolls of “vintage” film left to process and scan. He’s striking out to catalog every single image at the to-be-launched

“I find myself not so much looking at the people in the photo as I do the space around them, the rooms the people are in, what’s in that room, what’s sitting on the counter,” he said. “I think that tells a better story than someone just standing there smiling. I find a lot of these images fascinating for the context.”

The photos are ghostly and displaced and voyeuristic in a sense, in the way the splinter of any moment other than this one seems alien and of a time somewhat unfathomable, possessing an unfamiliar spirit.

“The more interesting stuff seems to be the last two or three frames on a roll. If you think about it, people are generally saying, ‘Oh I need to take the last couple images on this roll before I go get it processed,’” Bettwieser said. “Generally, those seem to be the more funny, intimate moments: a couple in bed smiling, trying to finish off a roll, a husband taking a photo of his wife coming out of the shower, some of those really intimate moments that you never assume that anyone is going to see.”

There’s something extrasensory to the images, given we’re seeing something that was perhaps purposefully lost or discarded, or something that possibly no one will recognize, ever. Pictures of pets, pictures of relatives in coffins, pictures of intimate moments otherwise discarded in the recesses of memory.

“Technology has changed the way people shoot,” Bettwieser said. “Think about back when you only had nine or 10 pictures per roll. You really had to think about those being the images you wanted. Now I’ll just take as many as I want, fix them up in post, whatever. Part of the reason I do the rescued photo project is that I feel like people just snap photos constantly, mindlessly taking photos. I like the idea that you have to take more time with it, taking it back to a time when we didn’t have digital photography. It meant something more because the photographers generally were the only ones who saw it. You get your roll of film, you take it to get developed, you’d be excited to get your prints back and then you put them in a photo album and then they would be just shared with you and your family.”

One of the most remarkable discoveries for Bettwieser has been that developing film doesn’t require a dark room. He’s eager to make the distinction between processing film and making prints: The former requires just a blacked-out kitchen and his lightproof tank, while the latter is the room used for making actual prints. Because all of the Rescued Film Project images are scanned to digital, the necessity of a darkroom is null.

“People don’t realize that you can develop their own film in black and white for between $150 and $200,” he said. “It doesn’t take much. If you can make an omelet, you can process film.”

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While part of the project’s aim is to encourage people to develop film in order to keep the industry alive, another of the ultimate goals of the project is to perhaps get the images back to their rightful owners.

“These days, I feel like people just snap and share. Here’s my lunch, here’s this, here’s that. There isn’t as much thought put into the images people are making these days,” Bettwieser said. “That’s why I think it’s important to go back and find the images that people found so special, and are unique that have only ever been seen by the photographer and myself as I develop them. People rarely ever take pictures of something they want to forget.”