The Ghosts in the Camera

If you're a Lord of the Rings fan -- and I hope you are -- you've probably heard of the (in)famous parody of the epic series done by the Harvard Lampoon back in 1969.

The parody is called Bored of the Rings, and if you haven't read it yet, you should. Few books have moved me to laughter so many times. It's irreverent, crude, and often obscene, but as the polar opposite of the grandeur and dignity of the real Lord of the Rings it had to be.

Yes, I found the paperback, which appears to have been abducted by wolves, subjected to fires, and possibly passed between drunken tornadoes in the decades since '69.

But while looking, I found something else.

That, my friends, is a very old camera.

It was owned my my maternal grandfather, Harold Gean. Grandpaw Gean (hey, this is Mississippi, no one says 'grandfather' unless they're talking about a clock) was what we'd probably call a hoarder today. He got things. He kept things.

When he died, I wound up with this camera. I put it away, in a drawer, because I didn't want to sell it, and I've always had a fascination for anything optical.

Fast-forward through a few decades, to today. I found a sealed bag, vaguely remembered what was inside, and pulled it out.

A little research with my friend Google revealed this to be a German-made Agfa PB-20, probably manufactured in 1934. It used 120 mm film that came in a 9 exposure roll. It's a far cry from the whiz-bang zip-zap digital rigs of today. The photographer did all the work -- set the F-stop, set the focus, lined up the image with the twin pop-up framing sights. Checked his own lighting, heck, probably kicked wolves and badgers out of the way while he did all that. It was 1935. Rough and tumble was the order of the day.

Black and white film only, of course. Color for the average Joe was still a World War and a few years away. The Agfa PB-20 was a pretty popular camera, even though it cost a whopping seven bucks and change. And it took great photographs, too.

Granted, this particular specimen has seen better days. The leather is cracked and decaying. The bellows still expand and contract, but I doubt they're still light-tight. The lenses need a good cleaning. I think the shutter still works, but it needs a lot of TLC and some carefully-applied lubricant.

On the whole, though, the Agfa is in decent shape. The mechanics are still basically sound. Turns out the differences between the 1934 Agfa and my 1967 Pentax K1000 aren't that vast. Just for fun, I tried rewinding the film, sure the old camera was empty.

I felt resistance. Felt movement inside.

That's right -- it felt like there was a roll of Kodak Verichrome 120 mm B&W film still inside the camera. 

I completed the rewind process, telling myself the whole time I was just feeling eight decades of grime and decay acting against the rewind wheel, and nothing else. No need to get my hopes up. Even if there was film inside, what are the odds it might still be viable after all this time?

Still, I very carefully rewound it, and after a few more minutes on Google, I opened the Agfar for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt was President.

And there it was -- a roll of Kodak Verichrome, just like the Web predicted. Largely intact.

For all I know, it was last used to take photos sometime between the Great Depression and World War II.

Photos of people who might well be my grandparents or other relatives.

From seventy years ago.

The reality is that the film is probably so degraded it can't be developed at all. Or that if it can, I get five images of old shoes or blurry thumbs.

But what if, against all odds, a few snapshots of a long-gone place and time are preserved therein?

I put the film roll in a light-tight bag. I'm checking around now, to see if anyone I know has any darkroom equipment. If I ever do wind up with images, believe me, I'll post them here.

But even if I don't, for a moment I felt a unique connection with the man who loaded film in the Agfar, so many years ago. I'm sure he meant to have the photos developed. I'm sure he had no idea, no idea whatsoever, that his grandson would be posting pictures of the camera on something called the Net and talking about him in something called a blog. The words themselves would have held little or no meaning to him.

But the pictures, if they have survived, will transcend all that time, all those years. Even if I don't recognize any of the faces. We'll be looking at each other, through this tiny lens, across a gulf of years.

So maybe this weatherbeaten old camera served its purpose after all, seventy plus years after its day.


It's the University of Mississippi Art Department to the rescue! An intrepid art instructor who specializes in photography has graciously agreed to take a stab at developing the film. I should know whether there are images there by the first of next week! Thanks Ashley! Will of course post an update then.