For nearly 70 years, an unfinished roll of film that documented a couple’s escapades in Switzerland and Italy was hidden away in a brass container, forgotten as it changed hands. Then, in 2015, the roll fell into the possession of William Fagan, a film collector and historian of photography from Dublin, when it arrived in a box with a vintage Leica camera from 1935. In August, curiosity got the better of him, he says, and Fagan delicately began to develop the film with the guidance of Mella Travers, a photographer and owner of the Darkroom, in Stoneybatter in Dublin.
They soaked the film for an hour in a diluted developer, agitating it every 15 minutes while Fagan ate a blueberry muffin to pass the time. The first things he noticed in the photographs were “old people, in old cars, wearing old clothes”, Fagan says. Intrigued, he took them home to digitise them for a better view. “The result was a revelation,” Fagan wrote in a blog post in September. “An unknown family, a clear location and a feeling of sadness that this talented photographer never saw the results of his labour.”
The photographs – 22 exposed frames of the possible 36 – were taken by a gifted photographer, Fagan says, noting the intentional composition of the images. He believes they were taken in 1951 or 1952. The collection prominently features a woman, who is often shown with a dachshund. One photo shows a man who appears about 10 years older than the woman. “I’m looking at these very personal moments in somebody’s life a long time ago and I’m saying, I shouldn’t have these, I shouldn’t be looking at these,” Fagan says. “These people were, at that moment, together in what appears to be having a nice holiday, and they have the little dachshund.”
The photographs, none of which would have been rescuable without “Mella’s instinctive directions on developing film that was so old – all could have been lost in the darkroom if Mella was not there” – document the couple’s travels in a BMW convertible around Lake Como, near the border of Italy and Switzerland, including a stop in Bellagio, in the Lombardy region of Italy. The pictures include scenic mountains and trees along the way. The last photograph is a portrait of the woman on a bench in the Italian village of Lenno, says Fagan, who is on the board of the Gallery of Photography, in Dublin. (He is also a former director of consumer affairs, a post he held from 1990 until 1998, the culmination of a long career as a public servant; Fagan then moved to work in the telecommunications sector.)
He believes the couple were possibly from Austria, Bavaria or the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Readers have jumped into the blog post’s comments section to identify familiar locations, and Fagan says he has received hundreds of emails. In one photograph, the woman is shown walking the dog down a narrow cobblestone street toward a church, her back to the camera. The signs on the street are in Italian. One person suggested that the photo was taken in Bellagio, in northern Italy, on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and that she was walking toward the Basilica di San Giacomo.
“This all adds to the mystery,” Fagan says. “We know exactly where they were. You could drive to the exact spots.” The car features in several photographs, sometimes parked in front of scenic backdrops. In one picture, the woman and the dachshund are in front of the car in a busy Zurich street with “postwar American cars around them being used as taxis”, Fagan says.
In another, the car is parked on an unidentified snowy mountain pass with the woman standing just outside the door. In a third photo, the car is parked in front of a building whose signs led Fagan to identify it as La Veduta, on the Julier Pass, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
A former executive for BMW, as well as others, identified the car as a BMW 315 model. Others pointed out that its licence plate indicates it was registered in 1948 in Munich in the American occupation zone in Bavaria after the second World War, Fagan says.
Several other photos show a steamer on Lake Como, which Fagan identified as one that was taken out of service in 1952 and reconstructed in 1956, which dates the photographs to the early 1950s. “Almost every crowned head in Europe and almost every Hollywood star has been identified as the couple, including some of the Kennedys,” Fagan says.
One reader of his blog post pointed out that the woman was wearing jewellery on the third finger of her right hand, rather than her left, which indicates they are “a wealthy German couple I think, rather than American”. But mysteries remain, Fagan says. “The question is, Why would somebody with a nice camera – and it was a Leica, because these cassettes only work in Leicas – why they would take so many pictures, 21, 22, of a nice holiday in Switzerland, and roll it back into the thing and never touch it again?” Fagan says. “That is one of the mysteries about this thing.”
Fagan isn’t exactly sure how the roll ended up with the camera. Efforts to trace the camera back to its original owner have so far been unsuccessful. Because of privacy laws, the records of buyers’ names are protected by camera dealers, and the same protections apply to car-ownership information, Fagan says. He and his colleague Mike Evans hope they are getting closer to identifying the couple, with help from some of the millions of people who have now seen the photographs online; Fagan believes his best bet for tracking the film’s origin is for someone to recognise the couple.
“The camera and the roll of film, they’re physical things – they’re belongings, they’re possessions – but these images actually belong to the people or to their families,” he says. “I’m thinking the family may know these people and would probably like to have these images.”
Fagan says he published the photographs in the hope that someone, perhaps a relative, will recognise their subjects. “They’re stunning, both the locations and the people,” Fagan says. “It’s hard for me not to continue to look for them.” – New York Times, with additional reporting