Film Developing Archaeology

Paul Stevens of Tucson, AZ develops old and outdated film. His passion for developing film started after his father Edward passed away. “He had camera equipment and negatives from traveling the world” Paul Said. “It was a chance to see a side of my father I never really had a chance to see.”

“I started using my father’s cameras. A locally owned camera store had some old outdated and expired film. I used this film to take pictures with his cameras. Some of the rolls had double exposures, because there were already images on them from previous owners” Paul said. This was the beginning of an archaeological adventure for Paul: finding old exposed film rolls and developing them see what images might be on the negatives.

He sources places like Ebay and Etsy for rolls of film, or antique cameras that still contain a roll of film inside. He stumbled on a cache of 20 undeveloped rolls from a single source, a family that lived in northern Washington state. There are family gatherings and other adventures through the state and western Montana. Paul’s wife Katherine is a librarian, and she is the other half of the this photo adventure. She uses her research skills to try and help identify images by the surroundings in the background or the subject matter. “There is this really interesting image where they are building a freeway through a Spokane residential area” Paul said explaining how his wife helped him identify the location.

Paul  and I connected after he purchased 13 rolls of exposed film from my Ebay site. He sent me a message after developing one of the rolls of film:

“I wanted to thank you and share a picture from the lot of film I bought from you last month. I developed the roll of 116 film this week. It had a picture from the deck of a Vietnam Era Tank Landing Ship (an LST). From the lack of equipment on deck and the dull SoCal landscape pics elsewhere on the roll, I’d say it was near its home port. Sadly, no pictures from shore leave from deployment.”


After receiving this message, he and I spoke by phone to talk about the film he finds. So far he has developed about 50 rolls of film since he started pursuing these older film rolls last summer.

Not everything is a treasure, Paul joked. “I bought these rolls of 35mm film from college students on a cross country trip in the early 90’s. They are literally photographs shot out the window of the car. Sometimes there is a welcome sign from crossing a state line, otherwise there isn’t much.”

Another time he developed a roll of Super XX black and white 35mm film. “It was 36 pictures of logs. Literally an entire roll of logs” he said with a laugh.

Paul uses a mixture of alchemy and patience to find the right mix of chemistry to develop the film. Sometimes he cuts the rolls in half and uses the first half of the roll to determine if any changes need to be made on the second half. “I tweak the concentration on the second half of the film. You get one chance, maybe two to develop the film.” he said. He also knows how slim the chances are of getting images on these older films. “If you get them you do, if not you don’t” he said.

He also trims a bit of the leader and watches it develop until it turns completely black. This helps him determine the development time for the rest of the roll.

Paul said “Each roll is a challenge you need to solve in order to get an image. Especially the film made pre 1960.”

The oldest roll of film he has developed is a roll of Kodak Verichrome film from 1951. “There are two photos, one of and elderly woman in front of a house, and another of her husband. They are both rough, there is some sort of fungus on the emulsion by the woman’s face, and not much detail.” Still, Paul managed to get an image which is totally amazing considering the age of the film.

If you would like to see more of Paul’s film findings, please visit his Instagram page where you can see all kinds of interesting photographs from his film developing and antique camera adventures!

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