Several months ago though, I pined for a new hobby. I decided that delving into the lost art of film photography was what was called for. I started collecting Brownie box cameras and came to enjoy shooting 120 roll film. I learned to develop my own film since I didn’t like the expense and the wait of shipping my film off to a lab. I came to enjoy the process of developing and scanning negatives almost as much as producing them. I read extensively about the cameras of the past and purchased a brand new, still-in-the-original-box Olympus OM-1n and several lenses to further my newfound appreciation for the art of exposing emulsion. I started to collect antique darkroom equipment. My new hobby quickly took over my idle thoughts, bookshelves and disposable income.

Eventually, I decided that my burgeoning collection simply must include the camera that put an end to my beloved cheap and cheerful Brownie box cameras; the 1963 Kodak Instamatic 100. This little camera did away once and for all with the cumbersome process of loading roll film into a camera back. The convenience of simply dropping in the 126 format cartridge put the humble Brownie and all of its antiquated cousins out of business overnight.

I found my Instamatic as I did most of my cameras on “the auction site”. A quick $20.39 payment had an excellent example of the Kodak Instamatic 100 outfit on its way to my doorstep. The “Outfit” was, of course, Kodak’s way of setting up a customer with everything they needed to start taking pictures right away. It consisted of a camera, two AAA batteries to power the built-in flash, four AG-1 flashbulbs and a KODAPAK 126 cartridge of Verichrome Pan black and white film; 12 exposures. While I waited for the postal service to deliver my new treasure, I thoroughly enjoyed the contemporary Kodak promotional film entitled “The Triumph of Lester Snapwell” staring silent film era icon Buster Keaton.

Upon arrival, I even found an exposed 126 “Kodapak Verichrome Pan” cartridge inside the camera; 12 exposures. Kodak didn’t seem to have used the “Kodapak” nomenclature very long and the rest of the outfit was still there, right down to the original AAA batteries. Immediately I began to wonder if this was the original cartridge that had come with the camera. Why would someone buy this camera, use it once and then not even develop the film? Would the film still contain images after patiently waiting to be developed for the greater part of sixty years? I put the outfit and the cartridge on my shelf and pondered these things for about a week.

My favorite theory became the idea that someone had bought the camera as a birthday present for an old man who hated having his picture taken. That they had cajoled and begged him to allow his picture to be made and assured him that the camera would not, in fact, steal his soul in the process. I also entertained the notion that a newlywed couple had received the camera as a wedding gift and had used it to, let’s say “document” their first night as man and wife and then realized that they couldn’t very well take THAT film to the corner drug store for development. The shame.

Could this film have been someones blackmail material? “See things my way or else the Mrs will see you in a way she won’t be able to forget?” This lead to having to deal with my own feelings of voyeurism. If I developed this film, even if it just turned out to be pictures of little Timmy’s eighth birthday party with cake and pony rides, I would be peering into the lives of people I would never know and a story that someone apparently hadn’t wanted to be told.

Finally, my curiosity demanded action. I cautiously cracked open the plastic welds on the side of the cartridge and carefully loaded the film into my developing tank. I had previously shot an expired cartridge of Verichrome Pan in a Kodak X-15. The “best if used by” date on that cartridge had been some time in 1977 and I got good, if somewhat grainy results in my standard ILFORD ID-11 stock solution at 8-1/2 minutes.

I decided upon taking the same approach. I poured the developer into the tank, timed and agitated the soup per ILFORD recommendations and anxiously awaited finding out just who or what had been recorded on this forgotten film. To my relief when I opened the tank and hung the film to dry, there were images and they weren’t of anything that I would be ashamed to share with my mother. Surprisingly, examining the first negative revealed a rather rotund older man with a humorously high waistline and dour expression. My favorite theory had been right. The “Reluctant Old Man Theory” was in the lead.

After scanning the negatives, the mystery film started to reveal it’s long-held secrets. Images of several older couples at a domestic gathering, a young couple and a lone, elderly gentleman with a charming smile enchanted me. I enjoyed examining the period early sixties furnishings in the home. Someone had proudly presented their birdcage with a single bird inside.

I considered how sad it must be to have been granted the gift of flight but be condemned to live one’s life in a small cage. To my glee though, the two pictures of the Smiling Gentleman showed the same Outfit box that now graced my shelf. I noted the price tag on the side of the box; “STERN’S – $11.89. With just a bit of internet sleuthing, I found that Stern’s had been a popular department store chain in New Jersey. Now I even knew where the camera had been purchased and for how much.

I was still unaware of who these people were though. I needed some context so I decided to share what I had found with the auction site seller. I sent off an email explaining how I had developed the film and attached the photo of the gregarious Smiling Gentleman. I envisioned an excited reply stating that the man was her dearly departed Father of whom she had no remaining pictures to remember him by and that she would be eternally grateful to the kind stranger who had developed this long-obsolete film when no one else could and had delivered to her a priceless treasure.

Predictably, the story did involve “The Departed” except that, disappointingly, the seller advised that the camera had been given to her parents by long gone next-door neighbors many years ago and she had no idea who these people were. So much for my heraldic aspirations.

I was at least happy that I had gleaned as much information as I had from the whole affair. I looked at the images again every week or so and smiled in the knowledge that the ancient film had, in a way that I thought would have made George Eastman himself proud, retained a collection of latent images through those many decades. I would forever have to imagine who these people were and what had brought them together on this occasion. I studied the images for clues.

I noticed that the white-haired lady was seen in two different dresses and wondered if they were in fact twins. I dismissed this and decided that the images had been taken over at least two different days. I tried to read some of the text in the newspapers on the coffee table with no success.

Then I noticed IT.

IT” being the somewhat disturbing commonality shared by two of the individuals captured on what was now my film. Have you noticed it yet? Look closely. I’ll wait. Yes, there IT is.

The “Large Gentleman whose pants are pulled up so high, it makes me physically uncomfortable to witness” and the “Cigar Smoking Man” are both missing their right index finger. It’s easier to see when they’re both sat together…

I first noticed this handicap upon studying the Large Gentleman and quickly noticed that the Cigar Smoker shared his particular affliction. They both even seem to have suffered the loss of this important digit to the same degree, which is to say, up to the last knuckle. One man with a missing appendage is interesting but two individuals sporting the exact same injury (?) will cause me to forever wonder about these men and where they left those unfortunate fingers.

Maybe they had a debt to certain connected people in the waste management business which they couldn’t repay. Vinny Boombotsa says “Hello”.

By the way, you may now refer to me by my new alias – Lester Snapwell. I still have ten fingers and I’d like to keep it that way.

~ Robert

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  1. Welcome to film Mr. Riffel, what an awesome Christmas surprise! Hope all is well! Your friend Rafael from FBA. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Love it 😺. Didn’t members of the Yakuza cut off their own fingers once as a mark of loyalty? Maybe these are the lone American members of a Japanese gang, managing the US side of a business run by urbane but slightly sinister men smuggling in contraband in fake 126 cartridges…

  3. I’d bet those gentlemen might have been co-workers, missing fingers like theirs might be from butcher shop injuries. Always love a great mystery film story.

  4. Hey Lester! Happy Xmas. What a great story. I will share it with my guests on Xmas Day.
    Compliments of the Season.
    SYDNEY Australia.

  5. I love going to antique stores and asking if I can have the film out of old cameras. Often times people will let me have it for free as they want to sell the camera empty. So far I’ve come up with a lot of interesting photographs from many years ago.