What does a good mystery cost? In my case, $16.05, including shipping. Let me explain…

I like collecting old film as much as I like collecting old cameras. So, when I came across an auction for an interesting film container and exposed film from Europe, I bid on it…and I won. Fast forward a few weeks, and my wife messages me to tell me I have registered mail from Croatia. Awesome! I come home from work to find that the film canister from the auction had arrived.

The film canister is for Perutz film, which I was not familiar with. After some research, I was able to learn the canister was specifically for their color film, likely from the mid-1960s, which was processed using the C-18 development process.

As anyone who’s developed a roll of found film will tell you, it’s a crapshoot. There’s a large chance the film was poorly stored, which does nothing good for exposed (or unexposed, for that matter) film.

Here’s where the mystery comes in.  Upon opening the package and removing the film roll from the canister, I found that the film inside was not Perutz film, but something different altogether. What I found inside was a bulk roll film spool (meaning someone had hand-rolled this roll of film). Wrapped around the film roll was a note that read “EXPOSED. Tri-X. APOLLO 11”.

APOLLO 11??? YES! APOLLO 11!!! On the reverse side of the paper, are the typed words “Use Area Codes For Fast Service”. Could this paper have come from a stationery pad like the ones you’d find in any hotel room? It definitely seemed that way.  One could also assume that it came from an American location…and not Croatia.

I knew immediately that I just had to develop the film! As a huge fan of NASA, the space program, and well…anything at all related to space travel, I’d be beside myself if there are photos of anything space-related on the roll.

I inspected the roll of film further and found the film leader had been left out.  This could mean it was either shot in a camera that leaves the leader out, or the photographer was very careful when rewinding the film. The thought crossed my mind that the film was in fact NOT exposed as the note said, but then I noticed fingerprints on the film leader. Could these have been left from when the photographer pulled out the leader to load the camera? More mystery.

You might be thinking, “Couldn’t you just ask the seller?”

Perhaps.  But I doubt the eBay seller would be able to supply any additional information. Their store has a bunch of other auctions for vintage items, mostly vintage packaging for a variety of products. My guess is they received this film much the way many antique stores do, from someone cleaning out a family member’s house and, not knowing what to do with the items but not wanting to throw them out, selling the items to an antique store, who put a $5.00 price tag on it and posted it on eBay.

I knew immediately that I just had to develop the film! As a huge fan of NASA, the space program, and well…anything at all related to space travel, I’d be beside myself if there are photos of anything space-related on the roll. And if there wasn’t…it’d still be a great mystery!!

After some internet research, I settled on using Kodak HC-110 as the developer.  Dilution F specifically (1+79).  This is a low concentration dilution.  I chose to “semi-stand develop” the film, hoping that the limited agitation would preserve the images. 

And that’s the fun with “found film”, isn’t it?  You just never know what was recorded.

As anyone who’s developed a roll of found film will tell you, it’s a crapshoot. There’s a large chance the film was poorly stored, which does nothing good for exposed (or unexposed, for that matter) film.  There’s also a large chance that nothing spectacular was captured to begin with.  I can’t tell you how many rolls of found film I’ve developed only to discover an image of someone’s cat, immortalized in the wild color shifts that come with film that did not age well.  Typically, the longer the “aging process”, the less likely you are to find usable images.

In this case, I did have a few things leaning in my favor.  First, it was black and what film, which gave me many options for development.  The note with the film indicated it was Kodak Tri-X film, and the film leader sticking out confirmed it was not color film. Secondly, if the note with the film was accurate, I knew exactly when it was exposed (July 20, 1969, 20:17 UTC +/- a few hours).

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What happened on July 20, 1969?  Humanity stepped foot on the moon for the first time.

Once the roll was dried, I used my Epson scanner to digitize the images.  After a little editing, the images started to come to life. 

It was a significant historical event that was televised and broadcast worldwide.  Could this roll of film be of an actual launch? Did someone photograph the TV broadcast?  Or did someone name their dog Apollo and these photos were of the family pet when he was 11?  There was only one way to find out.  It was time to develop the film!  But how?

After some internet research, I settled on using Kodak HC-110 as the developer.  Dilution F specifically (1+79).  This is a low concentration dilution.  I chose to “semi-stand develop” the film, hoping that the limited agitation would preserve the images.  Development time was 1 hour.  I gently inverted (agitated) the film tank for the first 10 seconds of the first minute.  I gave the tank 1 inversion at 15 minutes, 5 inversions at 30 minutes, and one final inversion at 45 minutes. This is probably more inversions than most people who do stand/semi-stand development use, but I was worried about bromide drag.  To prevent/remove any fogging that occurs as a result of the aging process, I used an additive, Benzotriazole.

I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled the developed roll from the spool and saw images.  At this time, I still wasn’t sure what I had, but at least there was something there.  The negatives were pretty thin (underexposed), but I was hoping I could make the necessary corrections in post using Photoshop.  While examining the hanging negative, there was some text in one of the frames.  I could barely make out the words “MAN ON THE MOON”.  That’s when it hit me.  These photos really were related to the Apollo mission as the note had implied.

Once the roll was dried, I used my Epson scanner to digitize the images.  After a little editing, the images started to come to life.  The entire roll was of the television broadcast of the moments leading up to Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon.  There are a couple of frames of the Disney characters Mickey and Goofy dressed as astronauts being interviewed. There are many photos of different gentlemen who I assume were explaining the science behind what was happening.  Then there are the photos of Neil descending the ladder and stepping onto the moon.  The remaining photos are of the lunar landscape.

The negatives cleaned up pretty well, all things considered. There was a lot of dust on the film, as well as some spots that didn’t develop properly. I cleaned the digital images up the best I could, being careful to not remove the “patina”.  I figured the roll of film deserved to hold on to a little of that. It had been sleeping for nearly 53 years, after all.

After sharing my discovery with friends on Facebook and Instagram, many commented that they remember watching this very same televised broadcast.  They described exactly what they were doing as the events unfolded.  One even remarked that his father had bought a brand-new color TV, their first, to view the event, only to discover it was being broadcast in black and white.  Another said they were traveling, and listened to the radio coverage of the event. It seemed the whole world was watching history happen.  I can only imagine many others choosing to also photograph their televisions, just as this photographer had, to record history in the making.

It’s not often that one can positively identify when exactly a roll, sheet or plate of found film was exposed.  In this case, we know exactly the “when” and can pretty much assume the “why”.  What we don’t know is the “who”.  Who was it that shot this roll of film, but never had it developed?  Who was it that was so excited to record this event, but never completed the process? 

Whoever it was, I bet they never thought their film would travel from Croatia to a small town in southwest Ohio.  A town less than an hour from the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the subject of their photos.  What a strange coincidence.  Or is it?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

However you look at it, I’d say it was $16.05 well spent.

~ Sam

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About the author

Sam Warner

I am an amateur photographer who enjoys collecting cameras and photography equipment as much as I enjoy using them. My photographic interests range from pinhole photography to digital. I also have a...

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  1. Thank you for that wonderful story, Sam. Like others here, reading it opened up a window to old memories in my mind. I was a young boy then, and I was watching this broadcast with my grandparents, in the night in Germany. My grandpa, born in the era of gas light and now, being beamed in his wing chair into space age, was excited but also in awe for Armstrong and Aldrin. Looking at their their huge life support system backpacks, he was worried that they might fall on their backs and never would be able to stand up again. His comments started to make even me a bit nervous back then. That memory popped up in my mind when I saw this wonderful series of old TV screen shots – thx again!

      1. If I remember correctly, I read much later that Nixon had already prepared a TV speech for the worst case… Yeah, for their families and friends it must have been extremely strained.

  2. Well your article stirred a memory. Aged 16, I too photographed the Apollo images off the tv using either a Voigtlander Vito or Zenit B on colour transparency film. They came out too! Lucky you finding this film in your camera and with such an excellent result.

  3. Wow, this bring back memories from my childhood. You put it in a nice written ´package´ as well.