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How Lisa Gray found magic in forgotten spools of mystery film

An uncovered lost world inspired the author’s thriller The Dark Room

I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs and the idea of a fleeting moment being forever frozen in time. To me, they are like stories with images rather than words, little mysteries to be solved. Where was the photo taken? Who was behind the camera? Who were the people in the shot? What were they thinking at that exact second? Were they happy or sad? Where are they now?

So, I was intrigued when I came across a newspaper article in 2019 about a group of people with an unusual hobby – developing the lost camera films of total strangers. These hobbyists buy undeveloped rolls of film on eBay, at car boot sales, flea markets and house clearances, and then they develop the prints themselves. Some take it quite seriously, spending a lot of time and cash hunting down old film. “Why?” you might ask. The thrill appears to be in the not knowing what the mystery film will reveal. Being the first person to see a photo that not even the photographer has seen. The heart-pounding anticipation of waiting for the image to gradually appear in the developer tray. 

The rolls could be completely blank or really boring, or they could provide a snapshot of a long-ago time and place or a sneak peek into someone else’s life. The fun is in finding out whether you’ve purchased treasure or trash. The idea of red-lit darkrooms and dusty cannisters of film and old cameras with half-filled spools might seem old-fashioned, but it’s a hobby that’s apparently bang up to date, with thousands of enthusiasts taking to online forums to share their finds with like-minded fans. 

One example is the Forgotten Film forum on the discussion website Reddit. Their most-liked image is a Kodachrome shot from the 1950s showing two suited men and a glamorous woman enjoying drinks and cigarettes in a living room. Other popular pics include a woman posing at an autumn picnic dated 1973 and a group of kids around a summer camp picnic table (year unknown but likely to be the 1950s). Kind of like Instagram but with an old-school twist and without the filters and airbrushing.

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After reading the story, I wanted to give mystery film a go. The problem was that I had no access to a darkroom and no photo-developing skills. Which would mean handing my quarry over to a photo shop, waiting for them to do their thing and hoping for the best. A bit like being a kid in the Eighties all over again, when there were no smartphones or digital cameras, and picking up the prints a week later was the norm. Except this time, I would literally have no idea what I would be collecting. 

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Suddenly, buying camera film online from a complete stranger and rocking up to the photo counter at the local Boots didn’t seem like such a smart idea. Sure, the wallet could be filled with snaps of a family holiday or a birthday celebration or kids unwrapping Christmas presents or guests having fun at a wedding. Or the photos could turn out to be altogether more sinister. That’s when the premise for a crime novel began to crystalise in my mind. My protagonist would be a mystery film enthusiast who finds something particularly nasty on a roll of film.

In The Dark Room, former crime reporter Leonard Blaylock once had the world at his feet but now leads a lonely existence as a freelance journalist in his New York apartment. Commissioned to write a feature on forgotten film, he initially dismisses the hobbyists as “a bunch of loonballs” before becoming hooked himself. Realising the potential for incriminating material among his finds, he turns his spare room into a darkroom and learns how to develop the photos himself. The successes are taped to his bedroom wall. One day, a film roll shows the murder of a young woman whom Blaylock had met five years earlier on the night that ruined his life. Armed with the photos, he sets off on a search for answers.

I admit I can spend as many hours as the next person aimlessly scrolling through Instagram, double-tapping the screen and handing out little hearts to show my appreciation of strangers’ shiny, perfect images of their shiny, perfect lives. But, for me, they don’t even come close to the appeal of a glossy print, with a name, date and location scrawled on the back, that’s been carefully placed under clear film in an album to be looked at for years to come. Apparently, I’m not alone in thinking that way. Back in 2019, the Forgotten Film forum had 3,000 subscribers. Today, it’s almost 20,000. At a time when we think nothing of taking 50 photos to get one that’s just right or airbrushing out a blemish or tweaking a smile to make it brighter, it seems like sometimes what we still yearn for is the real, unfiltered version. 

You can buy The Dark Room from The Big Issue shop on bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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