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Rescuing Memory

Aug 15, 2013

by Carolyn Fraser

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

The Super 8 camera was originally my grandfather’s. It was inside its vinyl carrying case in my closet on August 2, 1997, the day my apartment burned down. Days later, when firefighters escorted me into the building, we waded through ash-strewn water flooding the lobby. My sixth-floor apartment now opened to the sky. The pressed metal ceiling hung half-collapsed, the metal twisted, scorched and brutally sharp. What was once the floor was now an uneven field of rubble, of building materials, wet books, all my precious things. Everything, I presumed, was gone.

But it wasn’t. Despite the conflagration, the high-pressure water hoses, the collapsed ceiling and roof, quite a few things survived. Inside the closet, inside a box, the vinyl carry case was heat scorched, but fine. The camera seemed okay. There were two films I’d made inside, one half-exposed. In the years that followed, I moved from New York to San Francisco to Cleveland to Melbourne. Each time, I’d pack my grandfather’s camera and think about how I ought have the exposed films processed, just in case there was anything salvageable on them.

filmrescue_international

Film Rescue International

A 35mm Kodacolor-x film taken during the Vietnam war and processed in 2011.

Film Rescue International specializes in processing discontinued still and movie films. Housed in an old bank building in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, they receive approximately 150 rolls of film a week, 70% of which are films discovered after a person’s death and sent in for processing by family members. “It’s not the kind of job you choose,” says Greg Miller, who established the business in 1999 after years running a lab processing movie film. “You fall into it.”

During his time in the movie film lab, Greg discovered that a noxious formaldehyde hardener used in movie film processing could be used to process discontinued color still films. He stockpiled the chemical when Kodak discontinued manufacturing it in the early 2000s and only uses it when it’s of utmost importance that a film be developed in color. Mostly, Film Rescue International process color film as black and white using proprietary chemistry developed and refined by the company in order to preserve images at the highest quality possible. In conversation, on the company’s website, and on social media, it’s clear that Greg and his staff revel in the constant discoveries they make processing old film (“revelers of lost and found treasure”) and in the joy these found images bring to clients.

Finally, in January this year on a new year’s-inspired organization jag, I sent my two films to Canada, with only scant hope that there’d be anything visible on the films, both sixteen years past expiry and survivors of a fire in which the heat was so intense a pewter tea set melted to the wall.

When the package from FRI arrived at my work, I told everyone what was inside. Except I didn’t really know what that was, exactly – I had no memory of what I’d shot. It was a week before I watched the DVD.

memory-003

Carolyn Fraser

A reel of Super 8 film lasts 3 minutes 20 seconds at 18 frames per second. My film opens with a grainy, out-of-focus shot of a row of stones on a windowsill. The shot widens to take in the fire escape, and in the background, the George Washington Bridge. I pan slowly around the apartment. The film is dim, with an intermittent green flash along the right edge of the frame. Out the bathroom window, a train heads south along the elevated track along Broadway above 125th Street. Two figures appear on the futon couch – my parents, visiting from Australia. What I’m watching, I quickly realize, is the beginning of a road trip movie.

From the rental car, I shot the King Charles Meat Warehouse on 125th Street, the Cotton Club, and the chaos inside Fairway. We slow long enough for a clear shot of the New Jersey Turnpike tollbooth; other signs pass by in an unfocussed blur. There are unintentional moments of beauty – the windshield wipers moving back and forth in the foreground, a blurry, unreadable sign behind. 

memory-005

Carolyn Fraser

In a mid-century furniture shop in Nashville, my father demonstrates the action of a chrome waffle iron. My mother holds a small bag aloft as she exits an unidentified store and smiles broadly. A boxed pair of shoes is displayed. There is a high, wide shot of my mother entering a Lowe’s hardware. The last shot is of an exit sign to Chattanooga, taken from the moving car. The film ends suddenly with a blank white frame.

I’d returned to New York with a persistent crick in my neck, caused by long stretches looking out the side window of the car, quietly seething with resentment as we sped by flea markets that, according to my father, we didn’t have time to stop at. A year later, the waffle iron was lost in the fire. My father regularly mused over the fate of a television antenna he’d installed on the roof above my apartment during their visit. Ungratefully, I’d react with disproportionate annoyance every time he reminisced about its installation. I’d lost so much. I didn’t care about his antenna.

memory-006

Carolyn Fraser

When asked which material possession they’d try to save from their burning home, many answer: photographs. The Burning House is a Tumblr that elevates this question to performance art, with participants shooting beautifully arranged still lives of their chosen objects. None of these people, I’d wager, have actually had their home burn down – would anyone prioritize their AeroPress in an actual conflagration? In my case, I had my cat, the dress I was wearing and a pair of sandals. 

Photographs and films externalize our memories. To retrieve a memory thought lost or forgotten is a near-miraculous thing. It feels right to me now that the memory of this trip is not in seamless color but in black and white, the film scratched, heat-damaged, out-of-focus, herky-jerky. The feelings it evokes are familiar chords that have scored my whole life, but the detail – the neon Fresh Bagels sign, the play of light across the surface of a motel swimming pool, my mother hamming it up for the camera – these were gone until Film Rescue International brought them back. When I play the film for my parents, my mother cannot quite believe what’s she’s seeing. My father notes that he still owns the striped polo shirt he’s wearing in the film. Then he wonders again about his antenna: whatever happened to it?

Sears 156 Super 8 Camera Reflex Zoom XL Movie
Sears 156 Super 8 Camera Reflex Zoom XL Movie
Sold
1950s Kodak Brownie 8mm Movie Camera / Vintage Film Movie Camera
1950s Kodak Brownie 8mm Movie Camera / Vintage Film Movie Camera
Sold
Ye Olde Waffle Maker
Ye Olde Waffle Maker
$16.50 USD
Nobody Remembers But I Remember, Ceramic Tile.
Nobody Remembers But I Remember, Ceramic Tile.
Sold
16x12 Movie Poster Print - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
16x12 Movie Poster Print - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
$12.90 USD
Forget Me Not
Forget Me Not
Sold

3 Featured Comments

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 3 years ago Featured

    What an incredible story. Several years ago, when we were cleaning out my grandma's house as she descended into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease, my parents and I found two rolls of 8 MM film in a closet on her basement. Having no idea what was on them, and not being able to hope for any answer from her, my parents sent them off to a lab that converted them into a DVD. It turned out to be footage of my grandma, when she was about 12 years old, in the 1930s, ice skating with her sister and parents on a frozen lake behind their house. It was completely disorienting and amazing to see someone I'd only ever known as an old woman frolicking and dancing around as a child. That film gave me a sense of my grandmother as a young person that no still photograph ever could. I'm sure Carolyn's movie will mean even more to her when her parents are gone.

  • zoechristmas

    Zoë Christmas from ThaVarietyStore said 3 years ago Featured

    Love that! I started experimenting with expired film this summer. I use an old Kodak Duaflex II from the 60s and expired Kodacolor 620 film, which stopped being manufactured in the 90s. (Heck, my avatar here is shot with that camera and expired film!) I'm so happy Film Rescue International could help Carolyn out, and I'm glad to know about that resource in case I ever need it.

  • VelvetRevived

    VelvetRevived from VelvetRevived said 3 years ago Featured

    I have read your story with tears in my eyes. What a trauma you have lived through to have lost so much, but how lucky you are to have this DVD record of a happy time in your past. Our lives are so connected to our possessions and for many people, our photos. My mother was someone who considered her family photos to be her most prized possessions. She packed away boxes and boxes of photos and slides, but when she developed dementia from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, she had no memory of them at all. When she passed, I went through them all, kept some and sent some to relatives who would appreciate them. The ones I treasure are the ones of my mother and I together when I was little. I still get to see that adoring look she had for me at times, a look that was lost as her memory gradually faded.

70 comments

  • mlezcano

    Mary Lezcano from BellaBboutique said 3 years ago

    All of those forgotten moments are only resurrected when a nudge from the outside, like a photograph, pulls them forward. That being said, these moments are never really lost, they exist in the intricacies of our minds. Remembering them is like finding gold, the photograph the tool which brought you back to it.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 3 years ago

    Amazing story! Thanks for sharing!

  • jizbasusan

    Susan Jizba from TheWeaverOfWords said 3 years ago

    Such a wonderful reflection on life and what’s real. What’s important. What’s not. What we hang onto and what we can let go of. That’s so funny about the antenna. It reminds me of my boyfriend. He lent out his beloved industrial strength sewing machine and he never saw it since. He fondly remembers it from time to time. And time and time again.

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 3 years ago Featured

    What an incredible story. Several years ago, when we were cleaning out my grandma's house as she descended into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease, my parents and I found two rolls of 8 MM film in a closet on her basement. Having no idea what was on them, and not being able to hope for any answer from her, my parents sent them off to a lab that converted them into a DVD. It turned out to be footage of my grandma, when she was about 12 years old, in the 1930s, ice skating with her sister and parents on a frozen lake behind their house. It was completely disorienting and amazing to see someone I'd only ever known as an old woman frolicking and dancing around as a child. That film gave me a sense of my grandmother as a young person that no still photograph ever could. I'm sure Carolyn's movie will mean even more to her when her parents are gone.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 3 years ago

    It all makes sense...

  • richdon1

    Rich and Dona from TheCottageMouse said 3 years ago

    Tell your dad that polo is worth money today. What a marvelous story. Loved reading this and looking at the terrific photos. This made my day happy.

  • BozenaWojtaszek

    Bozena Wojtaszek from BozenaWojtaszek said 3 years ago

    Fascinating story, thanks for sharing!

  • handmadebycecilia

    Cecilia Escobar from HandmadebyCecilia said 3 years ago

    Wow, I love your powerful narrative, intriguing to the end. Thanks for sharing.

  • LetterKayDesigns

    LetterKayDesigns from LetterKayDesigns said 3 years ago

    How interesting!

  • debvasbinder

    Deb Vasbinder from BabyCuteBaby said 3 years ago

    An amazing story! Great memories saved by Film Rescue Int'l - Thanks for sharing the info !

  • lovelygifts

    Linda from lovelygifts said 3 years ago

    Amazing story!

  • zoechristmas

    Zoë Christmas from ThaVarietyStore said 3 years ago Featured

    Love that! I started experimenting with expired film this summer. I use an old Kodak Duaflex II from the 60s and expired Kodacolor 620 film, which stopped being manufactured in the 90s. (Heck, my avatar here is shot with that camera and expired film!) I'm so happy Film Rescue International could help Carolyn out, and I'm glad to know about that resource in case I ever need it.

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina said 3 years ago

    Lovely story! My grandma also lost everything in a fire. Everything except a few photos. She always felt like these photos were the connection to her former life. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • agebo

    Ann Cosgrove from acbcDesign said 3 years ago

    Great story - thanks so much for sharing!

  • admspeicher
  • Waterrose

    Rose Waterrose from Waterrose said 3 years ago

    Recently I found a huge collection of old slides at a thrift shop. I purchased them not having a clue what I would do with them. When I got home I looked through them and found that they were shot from the 1950 - 60s in Arizona. There were vacation memories, prom photos, girls in their swimsuits and other amazing moments in time. They obviously weren't my memories, but a wonderful peek into the life of someone else's past. These slides weren't lost in a fire, but they were lost to the future generations of that family.

  • ParisCabinet

    JD Kohler from ParisCabinet said 3 years ago

    What a great story to read. As I sit here I keep thinking of boxes of photos and 8mm film that should be pulled out, gone through, labeled, converted and shared with family. Thank you for the nudge, maybe soon.

  • farandtwee

    Vintage Minnow from VintageMinnow said 3 years ago

    photos from film are so much more breathtaking to me... digital will never be quite as amazing.

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 3 years ago

    I'm glad you were able to get your pictures developed. That article reminds me just how precious family photos really are. Thanks for sharing some of the companies that restore film, that's useful information.

  • VelvetRevived

    VelvetRevived from VelvetRevived said 3 years ago Featured

    I have read your story with tears in my eyes. What a trauma you have lived through to have lost so much, but how lucky you are to have this DVD record of a happy time in your past. Our lives are so connected to our possessions and for many people, our photos. My mother was someone who considered her family photos to be her most prized possessions. She packed away boxes and boxes of photos and slides, but when she developed dementia from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, she had no memory of them at all. When she passed, I went through them all, kept some and sent some to relatives who would appreciate them. The ones I treasure are the ones of my mother and I together when I was little. I still get to see that adoring look she had for me at times, a look that was lost as her memory gradually faded.

  • phydeauxdesigns

    Brenda from phydeauxdesigns said 3 years ago

    This reminds me that a distant cousin sent my parents a video some time back from an old super 8 film that included scenes from my parents' wedding and clips from a huge family reunion in the 70's. The reunion clips included a few shenanigans from my youngest brother, who died 20 years ago. What an amazing, beautiful and emotional shock! Mom passed away earlier this year and as Dad and I are going through boxes and boxes of mementos and other belongings, I'm longing for this video, something we can both watch again and again to see our loved ones whenever we need. :) Lovely story - thank you for sharing this. :)

  • GeorgieGirlLLC

    D George from GeorgieGirlLLC said 3 years ago

    Your story is so moving and I hate you had to go through the fire, but look at what was saved! Such a wonderful story and Thank You for sharing it with us!!

  • textilechicken

    textilechicken from textilechicken said 3 years ago

    An amazing story i am so pleased and delighted for you and great pictures to have.time to sort out a boxful of stuff i have .thanks so much

  • matildecanepagonzale

    Matilde Cánepa González from matildecanepaArtnow said 3 years ago

    "There are unintentional moments of beauty"and the power of images to evoke us .. nice story beautifully told..

  • matildecanepagonzale

    Matilde Cánepa González from matildecanepaArtnow said 3 years ago

    There are unintentional moments of beauty. and the power of images to evoke us .. nice story beautifully told

  • genisepark

    Genise Park from genisepark said 3 years ago

    Lovely story!! I adore having photos or movies of family it keeps the memory of them alive in my heart. I have been putting together my family's tree. Dreaming about finding a treasure trove of photos with names and on the back in a old shoe box tucked away some where.

  • AbleAprons

    Erika Kelly from PortlandApronCompany said 3 years ago

    I can't even imagine what it must be like to lose everything in a fire, especially because it takes not only your possessions, but your home as well. Thank you for sharing this story!

  • BunnyInDisguise

    Bunny Hipps from MimosaMornings said 3 years ago

    Beautiful story. Old photos and films are like ghosts from the past. They always make me feel nostalgic, even when they aren't mine.

  • Agasart

    Aga from AgasJourney said 3 years ago

    Amazing and touching story, thank you for sharing

  • scarvesinfinity

    Le Chelle from ScarvesInfinity said 3 years ago

    What a beautiful story. I was so touched that I read it with tears in my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • SavonsFrais

    Susann Weinberg from SavonsFrais said 3 years ago

    Great story! Loved the shot of the New Jersey Turnpike tollbooths.Grew up until I was 8 in North Jersey and was up and down that turnpike and over the George Washington Bridge more times than I can remember. So many memories for me also! About 15 years ago my sister had some old wind up movie camera reels ( from the '50's, I think) and had them transferred to VHS. Of course, that was your only option then. It sure was fun watching them. Me, 2 years old and my Roy Rogers guitar.

  • piccadillypastimes

    Ginger and Tim from PiccadillyPastimes said 3 years ago

    Wonderful and touching story. Thank you!

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 3 years ago

    Kudos to Film Rescue International for the job they do. They must make people smile everyday. It's good work if you can get it. Beautifully told story. Thanks for sharing.

  • CreateTheCutPaper

    Create The Cut - Paper from CreateTheCutPaper said 3 years ago

    A really lovely story to wake up too!

  • YearsAfter

    Sharon from YearsAfter said 3 years ago

    Such a heartfelt story and I love your writing. You have a wonderful spirit and know how to appreciate life for it's beauty even during hard times. Much love to you and also thanks to the Film Rescue Service!

  • jamasters

    Jess Masters from RefinedRock said 3 years ago

    Amazing!

  • mvmayophotography

    Mary Mayo from MVMayoPhotography said 3 years ago

    Loved your story. So sorry for what you had to go thru, but you were unhurt. "Things" can be replaced, but we still hate to lose them. Be kind to dad. That antenna takes him back to a happy time when he was helping his little girl.. :-)

  • rosebudsvintage

    rosebudsvintage from WillowsWear said 3 years ago

    Loved your story, it held my attention to the end. Thank you for the information on the Canadian Co. I was cleaning early this morning, came across buckets of forgotten photos and said what a shame, generations of memories left in storage. I have had old movies of my family that I have always wanted to see and never found anyplace that would be able to convert them. I thank you so much for this info. can't wait to ship them off.

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 3 years ago

    Fascinating article. Thanks very much.

  • metroretrovintage

    metroretrovintage from metroretrovintage said 3 years ago

    What a beautiful and heartfelt story. I must admit that I've wept reading all of the stories that everyone has posted here. This article really does pluck at one's heartstrings and reminds us all how very important it is to preserve our family memories. You've inspired me to pull out some old film rolls from long ago and try to get them developed. Also, thank you so much Carolyn for the information on the Film Rescue Service. You have helped so very many people with this wonderful article and thank you for sharing your experience. :)

  • NirvanaRoad

    Lisa from NirvanaRoad said 3 years ago

    What a sad and wonderful story.

  • wilmajeandesigns

    Wilma Jean from wilmajeandesigns said 3 years ago

    What a wonderful story! It's good to know about Film Rescue International. I too, have a box of old film that needs to be sorted and sent in. Wonder what memories they hold?

  • microInfluential

    microInfluential from microInfluential said 3 years ago

    A wonderful story! Love the tiny Canadian town connection. Such important work that they do. Sharing for sure...

  • CreativeDesignsbyLS

    Linda from CreativeDesignsbyLS said 3 years ago

    Thank-you for the touching story. My mother just moved from her home of 30 plus years and we came across treasures of photos and 8mm films. I can't wait to find out what special family memories they hold. You are a motivation.

  • eredantz

    Rita from eredantz said 3 years ago

    Great story...

  • caraniblock1

    Cara Niblock from TheMommysLife said 3 years ago

    A lovely story, written beautifully!

  • keniki01

    Niki from JandEdoodles said 3 years ago

    Wonderful story and beautifully written. You're a very talented writer Carolyn, thank you so much for sharing!

  • rowenamurillo

    Rowena Murillo from rowenamurillo said 3 years ago

    Beautiful. This story says so much

  • artbycarrie10

    Carrie Paquette from Artbycarriepaquette said 3 years ago

    Great article!

  • mriefler

    Molly Riefler from MulberryStreetPaper said 3 years ago

    So interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 3 years ago

    When ever I look at old pictures from my childhood, it brings back details that I haven't thought of in years. It's so fun to reminisce.

  • glitterandstones

    glitterandstones from glitterandstones said 3 years ago

    Amazing story . Thanks for sharing

  • Barknwoof

    Barknwoof said 3 years ago

    My profile picture is from film developed many years after my dog died. She was 13 when she passed, and the pictures were from when she was around 5.

  • glendalee

    glenda puhek from glendalee said 3 years ago

    Photography…what a great invention. And what a heart warming to reconnect us to our history.

  • lauraprill

    Laura Prill from lauraprill said 3 years ago

    Miraculous post...

  • HomegrownThings

    Melanie Wilson from HomegrownThings said 3 years ago

    It is amazing the feelings and memories that can be brought to the surface by old photos.

  • cloudtree

    Anna from Cloudtree said 3 years ago

    Wow, what a great story. I have some undeveloped films sitting in the bottom of a drawer that have moved from house to house, I wonder what memories they will bring.

  • WackyWanitas

    WackyWanitas from WackyWanitaDesigns said 3 years ago

    This is definitely my favorite Etsy blog post. Very vivid.

  • art2theextreme

    Nicole from art2theextreme said 3 years ago

    What an amazing story! My father develops the film for a living. It is great to see the looks on people's faces when they are able to view their memories!

  • catherinemaria

    Catherine Maria Charalambous from BouncyTree said 3 years ago

    Truly interesting story

  • KatieMarieHorn

    Cat Horn from CatMHorn said 3 years ago

    What a wonderful story - thank you for sharing.

  • cinderandhoney

    Caitlin Benson from cinderandhoney said 3 years ago

    Very touching. Thank you!

  • handyhappiness

    Heath from GuitarPickFashion said 3 years ago

    :)

  • agardenofdreams

    a garden of dreams from agardenofdreams said 3 years ago

    truly fascinating- what an amazing save I am sure you will always treasure! thanks for sharing this story and the resources!!

  • agardenofdreams

    a garden of dreams from agardenofdreams said 3 years ago

    truly fascinating- what an amazing tale & resurrected memory which I am sure you will always treasure! thank you for sharing this story and the amazing resources!!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 3 years ago

    Great story...Thanks for sharing it!

  • andyj391

    andyj391 said 3 years ago

    The antenna that your father put on the roof was his gift to your independence. It also signifies that when you lose something, he loses something too, even if he hadn't put the antenna up. It's his way of saying he loves you.

  • rinebird

    rinebird said 3 years ago

    I have my uncle's Minolta from the 80's..I am guessing.He left a roll of film in the camera,I now have hope it cab be printed.Thank you

  • MyVintageCrafts

    Elizabeth from MyVintageCrafts said 3 years ago

    So lovely :)

  • korenkwan

    Koren Kwan from GarasuWonderland said 2 years ago

    interesting story!

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