• March 17, 2015

Rescuing History’s Forgotten Frames

Rachel Link

For me, photography has always been about anticipation. Each time I unwind a reel of film I get the same thrill—the slippery strip slides off the spool, and in that moment I hold my breath as I raise my freshly developed roll up to the light to see what the negatives show me. Over 70 years ago, during World War II, an American soldier photographed 31 rolls of film and never developed them. Can you imagine unlocking a time capsule of the world as it was during that period? Photographer Levi Bettwieser, creator of the Rescued Film Project, essentially got that opportunity when he discovered the unidentified soldier’s rolls in 2014.

The rigorous and exhilarating process of developing these mysterious rolls was documented in a short film that I came across while curating content for National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase. This documentary brought back memories of my days as a photography student in college, with long afternoons spent in the darkroom and meditations on historical icons. As I watched Bettwieser’s film, I could sense his thrill at holding a roll taken from one of the most significant times in modern history. And I wondered, what if I never ended up finding out who took the pictures? With this in mind, I spoke with Bettwieser about the Rescued Film Project and his reaction to seeing the unknown soldier’s photographs for the first time.

Picture of soldiers waiting for train
Location unknown; possibly Reims, France

RACHEL LINK: How did the Rescued Film Project begin?

LEVI BETTWIESER: The project started about two years ago, but has only been public for about six months. It started mostly out of curiosity on my part. I often frequent thrift stores, and as a film photographer I would always cruise by the camera section. After a while I started noticing that some of the cameras still contained rolls of film, and since I could process the film myself for relatively free, I started buying the cameras. Once I got a batch of about 30 to 40 rolls (which took me around four months) I processed it. From there, I was so intrigued by the photos that I start actively pursuing lost and forgotten rolls of film outside my local community.

RACHEL: What’s the most interesting part of the process for you?

LEVI: The most interesting part is right after I pull the processed negative out of my tank. It’s dripping water and wetting agent, but I hold it up to the light to try and figure out what, if anything, is on that negative.

Picture of car driving by bus station
Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania

RACHEL: How did you happen upon the undeveloped film from the World War II soldier?

LEVI: The World War II film I purchased from a camera reseller in Mentor, Ohio. He purchased it at a live auction and sold it to me.

Picture of castle landscape with army tents
Chamarande Castle grounds, France

RACHEL: What was it like seeing these images for the first time?

LEVI: It’s hard to explain the emotions that were rushing through me. It was a mix of excitement, respect, and mortality.

Picture of man looking out on soldiers
A transport ship either en route to or returning from France

RACHEL: Were there any particular photographs that really struck you emotionally?

LEVI: Yes, it’s the very first one we reveal in the video. It’s a wide shot of some kind of religious service. The majority of the scene is a sea of soldiers facing away from the camera, participating in the service. But on the left-hand side of the frame, there’s a man who stands out because he’s wearing bright white, while everyone else is [in] gray. He’s standing on a platform above the crowd and staring right into the lens of the photographer’s camera.

Picture of welcome ship world war 2
Boston Harbor

RACHEL: What kind of impact do you hope the Rescued Film project has on others?

LEVI: I think it’s really hard to interpret what individuals feel when looking through the archive. I think everyone has a different reaction and to different images. I just hope that anyone viewing the archive feels the same sense of respect for the images [that] I do. I also hope that it helps them realize the importance of photography to our own individual histories. Each photo we take is a mark against time in which we’re saying, “I exist.” The images in the archive, while orphaned, tell a story much greater than any one of us will ever understand.

Find out more about the Rescued Film Project here.

There are 78 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sostenes R Ibarra
    March 21, 2016

    I still own a 120 roll film camera, is an west germany made AGFA BILLY 1920

  2. Paula
    January 7, 2016

    I have a bw reel of D-Day shot from the boats as they came ashore, still in its original shippi g container. Any suggestions where I could have it viewed and preserved? I live in Massachusetts USA thanks for all you’ve done to peseve our history.

  3. Greg
    May 29, 2015

    While I applaud Levi’s efforts with this, I would like to mention that this has been a frustrating time for us with brand confusion. Our company Film Rescue has been offering this service now for 15 years. We truly wish he had chosen a name less similar to our own.

  4. jose chavez
    March 27, 2015

    mucho talento

  5. JosePh from philippines
    March 26, 2015

    all I can say is wow!!im a history buff person…it’s not a habit..but it’s a passion….pictures can tell a story….especially like this film who has not been seen or develop….I hope in my country still have this undeveloped film….because I’m willing to do this..just like you did….

  6. Mike C Sheldon
    March 24, 2015

    you either study and learn from the past or be caught in an unending loop of failure to advance currently. Thank God for little slices of historical fact to keep the guessing out of our collection of history.

  7. Eva
    March 23, 2015

    Thank you for sharing the forgotten photos. I love looking at old photos and wonder what it was like to live in that era and wonder what their lives were like . I often watch the history channel I find it very interesting. Thank you again for your interest and devotion and for sharing a little bit of history with us . Eva

  8. Emin Mammadov
    March 22, 2015

    Very touching and strong! Thank you Levi for what you’ve done and NG for this film!

  9. Carolyn
    March 20, 2015

    Truly moving and a major contribution to WWII historical photography. Thank you for you sensitivity and skills. My father and stepfather were both WWII veterans and many family members served, and at very young ages. Most are deceased or many were killed in the war. Just THANK YOU

  10. Perry Swanson
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you!

  11. Isabel Hernández Tibau
    March 20, 2015

    Tremendo reportaje, impresionantes fotos,recuerdos dormidos que despierta una realidad y una experiencia invaluable!!! Felicitaciones!!

  12. Eleanor Dean
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you for giving me and others so much pleasure by sharing this, we hear about the war but so little photos are about it, this is a real treasure.

  13. Kay A. Nichols
    March 20, 2015

    Love finds like this, as another person said, always look for my Dad. Still wonderful to see. Is there a place where one can view more of finds like this?

  14. Danny Eugene Stahl
    March 20, 2015

    It’s great to see these pictures thank you for saving them. Fort Indian town gap is still in use as PA.National Guard.

  15. Lennart Verhagen
    March 20, 2015

    Does anyone know the name of the composer or the name of the song played? Would love to hear more from him or her.

    Great work Sir, beautifull film.

  16. Christine smith
    March 20, 2015

    These photos caused me to experience very mixed emotions. I am a Canadian nurse who has spent my whole career caring for Veterans. I have nurses only one Bore war Vet,and he was one hundred and the time.WW1,WWE and Korean War Vets.They have told many horrific stories,which broke my heart,especially those about children and tend how they suffered.I find it such a privilege to care for these men and women.So glad that these films fell into your hands,and d are receiving the care they deserve.

  17. Mitch de Padua
    March 20, 2015

    I have 4 rolls of film I shot in the early 1990’s, misplaced and forgot about them and never had them developed. They are of my kids I think. All the film developing stores are gone. I don’t know what to do with them. I can probably give them to a developer in the city, but am afraid they might just ruin whatever images that may have survived these 20 or so years. What can I do? Help…

  18. Michaël Laversanne
    March 20, 2015

    I’m sure the station is not Reims. This is Chamarande station, in the south of Paris.

  19. Donna
    March 20, 2015

    Always looking for my dad in any WW2 photos.

  20. Katie Rowland
    March 20, 2015

    I love this idea. Photos fascinate me. Well done on a great job.

  21. janet
    March 20, 2015

    This is amazing. Hope you put them in a book for the world to see.
    And for the person so concerned with chemicals going down the drain, I’m sure you have a way of deposing of them. That person was just assuming that you didn’t.

  22. Ray
    March 20, 2015

    Uncannily these images always stirs a lot of emotion in me !not of that era I am only a baby boomer

  23. Ashish Srivastava
    March 20, 2015

    Well done! We need to preserve our history.

  24. Pauline Muncy fakelman
    March 20, 2015

    this amazing I,m glad got this site my friend share great photos stuff I love seeing because I moved away Big Creek in 1970 and Moved to Ohio and been in Fl.love sites thanks to friends..

  25. Tanya
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you for sharing these amazing pictures that would have been lost if it wasn’t for you!! Love taking a step back in time!!

  26. Neil Stevenson
    March 20, 2015

    Amazing thank you for taking time and patience to develop these pictures. Truly is a moment captured in time.

  27. Greg Lindebaum
    March 20, 2015

    Where do I go to see all the pics & captions. Not all comments inbetween!
    Thanks, Greg

  28. Abisai De Alejandre
    March 20, 2015

    Gracias por compatir una parte de nuestra historia.

    March 20, 2015

    i love photos my fav ww2 blues singers 1920s 30s 40s old buildings .

  30. Samuel Sanchez
    March 20, 2015

    Great piece of work,looking for more…

  31. Belinda Rimer
    March 20, 2015

    What an incredibly valuable discovery. The soldier or his/her family were probably heartsick when they were lost. Thank you for handling them with such reverence and respect.

  32. Libby
    March 20, 2015

    “Rescuing history” – what an amazing find & project! I would love to see all of the photos you uncovered, in a nice coffee-table book. I had family in WWII; you opened a window into that time in history for me. Thank you.

  33. Manja
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you so much for this great work you have done. My dad was photografer and I remember very well the process in the dark room. Thanks for save this great history.

  34. Nancy Marine
    March 20, 2015

    I searched the faces of the photos that showed them, searching for my then 18-year-old father, sent to the war before he’d graduated high school. I saw his face in none if the photos, but saw his face in all of them. Each of these men is/was someone’s father and any of them could have been my father. So poignant and touching and important.

  35. Robin Gutell
    March 20, 2015

    I wonder how many amazing photographs are hidden away, forgotten, or lost in closets, boxes, etc. My father had photographs of Patton, Bradley, and others at Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s funeral shortly after the D-day invasion in WWII in June 1944. A few years ago my father was encouraged to send them to a US wartime historical office. They must have been shocked when they saw the following photographs. – http://framework.latimes.com/2014/05/08/how-a-soldier-shot-a-famous-generals-funeral-in-normandy-after-d-day/#/0

  36. Larry Placido
    March 19, 2015

    My father was a WW2 vet, served in the Pacific Theater. Interesting to see images from our past, a step back to a different era. I know there are stories behind each and every one of them…

  37. Terry Rains
    March 19, 2015

    What a wonderful service to mankind. Many can behold the beauty, the breathtaking time in history only a photo can behold. The untold stories you are able to tell simply by developing these vintage photos. It is amazing and your time and efforts are greatly appreciated. God bless you. Thank you again.

  38. Wende
    March 19, 2015

    Hi…this is just fabulous..I can only imagine what it feels like to open those cans..will these photos be in a book one day..I’d really like to see any that may have been taken in Germany..I’d like to think I’d be lucky enough to see a relative..now that would be exciting.!

  39. Cristina cordova
    March 19, 2015

    if there are enough of these photos to make a book, I would love to buy it. My father was at Normany.

  40. Diane M Tuttle
    March 19, 2015

    Here is what these photos bring to my mind. My dad fought in WW11 in infantry. He died in 2011at 87 yrs. old. He had many stories to tell. I wanted him to write them down so bought him a 12 pack of legal tablets, 12 retractable pencils, and 12 pens. Only 1 paragraph was written. Prior to being sent to Europe via boat, the army said they would teach the men to swim. There wasn’t time. Dad didn’t know how to swim and never learned. He fought in Operation Cobra, Hurtgen Forrest and went in to Battle of the Bulge on the 3rd day. He told stories of nuns in France bringing his troop pastries and wine; of going into a basement where people were huddled against a wall – he walked out; of passing German soldiers out in a field on a path and the Americans & Germans just looked at each other and kept moving because they were all so exhausted. His comment to me was, “they were so handsome and young”.
    In Hurtgen Forrest he told a story of e deer at the bottom of a ravine. Shelling was going off above the ravine and the deer were startled and stopped. Then there were stories of comerades, some funny some sad. I gave him “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokov when it first came out as a Father’s Day Gift. He said is was ok. He told me he hated war. I have his medals and the flag that was draped over the coffin. RIP dad.

  41. Kenneth Dorcas
    March 19, 2015

    I love history

  42. G. Taillon
    March 19, 2015

    Wonder if anyone recognized themselves in the photo. What a wonderful find. Thanks to the man who developed them.

  43. Robin Gutell
    March 19, 2015

    I wonder how many photographs from WWII have not been released. By happenstance somebody encouraged my father to share these photographs of Patton, Bradley, and others at Theodore Roosevelt Jr. funeral shortly after the WWII D-day invasion in June 1944. Otherwise these photographs and history would still be hidden in a closet. http://framework.latimes.com/2014/05/08/how-a-soldier-shot-a-famous-generals-funeral-in-normandy-after-d-day/#/0

  44. Maureen McDonald
    March 19, 2015

    William E. McDonald born 1923, WWII, pacific, petty officer, Korean War, 2001, lied about his age due to starving from due to depression, Lilly, PA, only 17 when he joined, also was a frogman checked for mines-scuba diver

  45. Kevin
    March 19, 2015

    Amazing. Understanding life is all about perspective, and each photo gives you its own insight.

  46. Ann Gauthier
    March 19, 2015

    This is the most fascinating thing I’ve seen – ever. Thank you

  47. Molly Boyce
    March 19, 2015

    I hope you can print all the photos and put them in a book for us. I would love to see them. My Dad was in WW2 and assigned to the Pacific Theater. He was in Company F and was part of eleven sets of brothers from Medina NY. I miss my Dad.

  48. Victoria
    March 19, 2015

    how wonderful to be able to open this time capsule. I can’t wait to see more.

  49. Leon Joseph C. Lazo
    March 19, 2015


  50. Pamela Logan
    March 19, 2015

    This is so touching and what a labor of love. If there is a way to be involved in the project, I’d love to find out.
    What an incredible story – best one of heard in quite some time.

  51. Chris
    March 18, 2015

    Kinda lame

  52. Irma Zapata
    March 18, 2015

    Thank you so much for sharing this! These pictures moved me emotionally! Some of these comments of loved ones who served and loved ones lost, in WWII, brought me to tears!! I want to know everything about this generation…but there’s nothing better than first-hand accounts and above all PICTURES to draw you to the very tale. Beautiful!

  53. Josephine
    March 18, 2015

    Highest respect for the painstaking process you undertake to save these meaningful images about a significant part of world history.

  54. Lori Merrill
    March 18, 2015

    I have many brownies splicers, slide machine and movie projector. Approximately 50 movies from 1932-1933

  55. Charles
    March 18, 2015

    Sadly the new generation has no concept!

  56. Reinaldo Soares de Souza
    March 18, 2015


  57. Marcie
    March 18, 2015

    Fasinating photos – a step back in time – the photos make me wonder where they were taken and where are those men heading? I do hope all recused photos are showcased where I could view them.

  58. Garrett Soulen
    March 17, 2015

    Amazing! A lot of WWII survivors are no longer with us. So to see these forgotten photos was breath taking. Thank you.

  59. Pauline
    March 17, 2015

    Amazing thank you for sharing

  60. inma
    March 17, 2015

    No hay palabras que definan la entrevista, son todo sensaciones como los pelos de punta, aumento del ritmo cardíaco …..

  61. Steph
    March 17, 2015

    This is an incredible discovery, thanks so much for sharing this

  62. Joyce
    March 17, 2015

    The photos are fascinating; pictures that are vivid reminders of our past history, a time which can bring back memories, both good and bad, for those who lived through that period of our history.. One wonders why the soldier never had the film developed.

  63. Fairly Maria Turambi
    March 17, 2015

    I loved to know the history, always expecting the proof by seeing the pictures and videos. It’s a very interesting moments.

  64. Jean Minner
    March 17, 2015

    Wonderful find. Someone is too worried about chemicals and not forgotten history.

  65. rodger l jeffries
    March 17, 2015

    Do you ever sell any of the prints to the regular public?

  66. Steph Rae
    March 17, 2015

    This is an incredible discovery, thanks for sharing them

  67. Theresa
    March 17, 2015

    my father was in WWII In France, a medic. Looking at the ones you did show made my heart race thinking he could possibly be in one. What an amazing and wonderful thing you are doing. Is there any way to see all of the pictures that you were able to develop?? Thank you so much for sharing this!!!

  68. Patricia
    March 17, 2015

    I so love pictures, and the old ones are the best. They tale a story, make you experience a time and place, and give you feeling or being there! You ae a blessing! For one without the other does not a picture make! Thank you for sharing!

  69. Sonia bakhtiar
    March 17, 2015

    Time passes n yet there are clues to go back in it…

  70. Suse
    March 17, 2015

    I have dozens of rolls of 35mm b/w film that my father shot in Italy during WWII. I hope to get to a lab one day to print contacts.

  71. Allan Camp
    March 17, 2015

    My Grandfather fought in WWII both European and the Pacific theatre. God bless these American Soldiers!

  72. Dwight Pounds
    March 17, 2015

    It would be interesting to know the types of film rescued and the decisions made on how to process them. Film at the time was quite slow, verichrome and possibly XX from Kodak. How much does film dissenegrate over forty-fifty years sitting in a camera in various states of heat and humidity? Which modern chemicals can be used? D76? And at what concentration, temperature, and time in the developer? How many different films were recovered–Ansco, Kodak, and international films?

  73. Clare
    March 17, 2015

    Washing all those chemicals down the drain, is there an issue with that?

  74. diane
    March 17, 2015

    these are wonderful. it’s like taking a step back in time.

  75. DeAnna Beck
    March 17, 2015

    My dad was in Reims…who knows, maybe he is in this photo someplace.

  76. Pauline Styles
    March 17, 2015

    My heart just welled up when I seen this post for the first time… One pic you said was maybe France, my Uncle was a SGT. who was killed in France, my father fought in the war also, was to meet my uncle in France, only to find he was killed the day before… My heart leaps so fast every time I see a soldier, thinking could it be my father, could it be my uncle… Their war stays firmly in my heart, maybe I can see my father in one of these pictures you had found… please keep me in touch with you…

  77. june jean playfair
    March 17, 2015

    Interesting, I wonder what forgotten events will turn up, and what memories will be evoked.

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