Photographer Finds 90-Year-Old Camera That Ends Up Holding A Piece Of History He Couldn’t Have Fathomed
Self-taught photographer Martijn van Oers was a regular thrift store shopper, when on one trip he found a vintage camera he knew he had to add to his collection. Martijn was excited to see that it looked largely unused, but when he brought it home, he found that it still held a roll of film. In the end, Martijn would discover that the film contained more than just some photographs, but a missing piece of history.
A Diamond In The Rough
Self-taught Dutch photographer Martijn van Oers is one of those people for whom photography isn’t just a way to make a living, or a weekend hobby, it is basically his whole life. For Martijn, photography is a form of expression, preservation, and most importantly storytelling.
A regular among the thrift stores in his city Breda, in the southern Netherlands, Martijn was wandering through a second-hand shop, casually looking through the vintage goods in 2017 when he spotted a treasured find. As he rummaged through the once-owned items, he idly wondered how they’d come to sit in the thrift store. Suddenly, Martijn snapped to attention. He had spotted a hidden gem, a vintage camera.
A Treasured Find In The Thrift Shop
As Martijn was sifting through the shelves, the old camera immediately caught his eye. Although he was accustomed to working with much more modern high-end photography equipment, the vintage camera was calling to him – it could be an exciting addition to his collection.
As a self-described photography fanatic, Martijn studies the history of his craft, but he was unfamiliar with this particular camera. Martijn expected it to cost him a pretty penny, but was pleasantly surprised when he purchased it at a really reasonable price. Without thinking much of it, Martijn brought the camera home, unknowingly setting off an incredible chain of events.
Taking Home A Hidden Gem
The camera was in fairly pristine condition considering how old Martijn suspected it might be. Bringing it home, Martijn had the idea that his thrift store treasure could make a great gift for his wife. And of course, if the mechanics turned out to be in working order, he could enjoy it too.
Having less experience with older photography equipment and the more intricate and outdated methods of image development, Martijn was curious to see if he could take a couple of pictures with it. But before he got ahead of himself, Martijn cautiously opened up the camera, and couldn’t believe what was inside.
The Journey Of Martijn’s Vintage Camera Begins
The camera Martijn had come across was an original Zeiss Ikon 520/2 folding camera. Without having trained or studied photography formally, Martijn did the responsible thing, and reported his find to the Dutch Broadcast Foundation, or NOS, to see what sort of information he could gather before attempting to try it out.
Martijn explained, “I wanted to see if the camera still worked, if everything opened and if the wheels were still turning.” In the meantime, Martijn decided to delicately inspect the inner workings of his Zeiss Ikon on his own. To his gleeful surprise, Martijn found it contained a roll of film!
Holding Onto A Piece Of History
Having done some research, Martijn found that the camera first hit the market in 1929, and was produced by German camera company Zeiss Ikon through 1937. He was thrilled to see that his instincts had been right, and that the camera was indeed a vintage treasure.
The Zeiss Ikon 520/2 used 120 type rollfilm, a type of film which decreased in popularity by the ’50s, but which is still carried in professional photography stores around the world. Holding the canister of film he’d found inside the camera, Martijn wondered what kind of pictures a camera from the early 1930s could take, if any?
Inspecting The Mysterious Roll Of Film
Just because the camera came from the late 1920s/30s, Martijn knew that the roll of film could have been more recent. Upon further examination, Martijn believed that it did indeed look quite old, and across the canister the word “EXPOSE” was written.
Just as quickly as his excitement had mounted when he found the film, Martijn’s hope started to sink. What did “EXPOSE” mean? He had hoped to try and develop the film, but he worried that the film had been exposed, and he wouldn’t be able to produce any images from the roll. However, he wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
Salvaging What They Could Of The Film
Based on further research, Martijn deduced that the film was very likely produced sometime between the 1940s and 1970s. Taking the age of the roll of film into account, and coupled with the ominous “EXPOSE” label, Martijn started to think that the likelihood he’d be able to develop the film into photographs was low.
With such a tricky challenge ahead of him, Martijn talked to his friend Johan Holleman, a photography developer with a lot of experience under his belt. Johan warned Martijn that they may not get anything off the negatives. Still, they both agreed that they had to at least try.
The Film Negatives Start To Show Some Cause For Hope
Even though Martijn was beginning to become a bit of an expert about the history of the Zeiss Ikon 520/2, he still didn’t know anything about the history of this particular camera he had come to possess. Martijn couldn’t imagine what kinds of images the negatives could contain.
Martijn brought the film to Johan, and together the two carefully unfurled the roll to see what kind of state the negatives were in. As he examined the undeveloped film with Johan, the two photography enthusiasts tried to manage their expectations. But quickly their hopes rose — they couldn’t believe the faint images they were beginning to make out.
Starting The Delicate Process Of Developing The Film
The Zeiss Ikon 520/2 was capable of taking eight photographs on 120 type film, and as the two photography devotees looked intensely at the negatives, they couldn’t believe that they were actually making out the faintest outlines of photographs. Against the odds, the images had been preserved.
Even if they were only able to produce one or two photographs from the old roll of negatives, Martijn and Johan agreed that they had to keep going to see what kinds of images the camera had taken, and maybe learn a little more about its history. And so, with hope bubbling up in their chests, they set to work trying to develop the film.
Impatience Leads To A Big Risk
And so, on that regular Tuesday afternoon in Johan’s kitchen, the two wasted no time setting about processing the negatives and trying to produce prints. With a discovery this mysterious and thrilling, Martijn had an especially hard time being patient – he was too just too excited (and who could blame him?!).
Yet, the process of developing film “requires knowledge, timing, patience, and accuracy,” according to Martijn. Aside from the obvious necessity of a dark room, the tiniest thing like the wrong temperature water, or wrong amount of developing fluid can spell disaster. Meanwhile Martijn’s impatience reached a fever pitch — and so he took a risk.
Gambling With The Negatives
As we now know, the success of developing images rests almost entirely on temperature, but Martijn couldn’t wait for the photographs to dry. The time it was taking the film to develop was excruciating for Martijn, who was too eager to wait for the process to happen in its time, and so he convinced Johan to take a risk.
Johan was persuaded to use a hairdryer to dry the roll, which they both knew could just as easily ruin everything. Martijn later admitted, “That is actually very dangerous, but I had to have those things under the scanner.” Would it lead them to disaster?
History Starts To Appear Before Their Eyes
Turns out it was worth the risk! Martijn got supremely lucky, and drying the film with a hairdryer didn’t affect the quality of the images. As they were processing the film, the images were becoming more and more clear. History was starting to play out right in front of them.
Of all the photos, four of the developed photographs revealed detailed images. Without wasting a moment Martijn scanned the negatives so they could examine what the camera had captured on a bigger scale, and maybe even some contextual clues as to when they were taken. As they studied the photographs they began piecing together a fascinating story.
Piecing Together The Story Of The Mystery Camera Owner
Looking at all four images, Martijn began to put together the story of the original owner of his incredible vintage camera. The images appeared to have captured a couple or family on vacation, decades ago. Martijn even believed that one of the images was actually of the camera’s owner.
Given the time frame he’d calculated the camera to have last been used, he knew that such a piece of equipment would have been quite expensive for the time, and a prized possession. One image showed a man, carrying the camera’s case — he’d clearly brought the camera to capture an important trip. As he studied each photograph, the story became clearer.
Precious Family Photographs From The Past
The next photograph Martijn studied showed a woman standing in front of a stone wall, on a street with casual figures strolling by in the background. Off in the distance a body of water was visible, and even a bridge. Where could these photographs have been taken?
Martijn made note of every small detail he possibly could in the hopes that he would then be able to narrow down the year the images had been taken, or where the camera had come from. He studied the photographs for a recognizable landmark, he knew that even the smallest thing could be a clue.
Deducing The When And Where Of The Images
The next photograph to have successfully been developed showed the same woman from the previous one he’d studied, and this time she was walking along a promenade. It was beginning to seem like the photographs were capturing a family on a seaside vacation.
Based on the clothing and hairstyles of the people from the photographs, Martijn was able to estimate that the images had been taken in either the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s. But without more information, like the location they were in, Martijn couldn’t narrow it down further. He knew he needed more information if he was to learn about the camera’s original owners.
With all the photographs developed, Martijn tried to study the images for context that’d indicate telling clues, but he’d come to the end of his powers of deduction. He decided it was time to seek out some help. And so he turned to his social circle.
Uploading the photographs to his Facebook page, Martijn’s post quickly began to pick up speed and shares. As news of Martijn’s find spread, it wasn’t long before one of his acquaintances reached out to say he not only believed he recognized the location the images, but that he was fairly sure he could prove that they were in fact taken in Biarritz, France.
Social Media Takes Him A Step Closer
Martijn’s Facebook friend had vacationed in Biarritz many times, and so Martijn was quick to trust him. Still, just to confirm his suspicions, his friend sent along a Google Streetview of the location in Biarritz – remarkably, it had hardly changed at all over the years!
In an interview with the NOS, Martijn later expressed his amazement at how quickly all the details came together. “We thought it would take a lot of effort to find out the location. But it was done in half an hour.” Having narrowed down the approximate when and where, Martijn was more determined than ever to find out who was in the photographs.
His Story Starts To Go Viral
Martijn couldn’t believe how fortunate he’d been, first in finding the camera, then in finding the film roll, and finally in developing the images. “Looking at the images, I feel I stumbled across a small treasure-chest — or time capsule — giving us a tiny glimpse into the past,” Martijn mused.
Martijn knew the original owner was probably (and unfortunately) no longer alive, but he held out hope that somehow, someday he would be able to reunite the images with the mystery couple’s remaining family members. Martijn made sure to get all the details he had obtained out in the press — surely someone would recognize the figures?
A Possible Relative Reaches Out
To Martijn’s elated surprise, someone actually did reach out, claiming to recognize the couple from the photographs. The woman who contacted Martijn was named Marion Jurrjens. And she not only believed that she recognized the people from the pictures, but that they were her relatives!
Marion excitedly explained that she was fairly sure the camera must have belonged to her grandfather, as the images were of her grandfather, who had visited Biarritz with his wife and daughter (Marion’s aunt). So far her story lined up, but how had Jurrjens even found Martijn’s post, and could she really prove that the photographs depicted her relatives?
Marrion Jurrjens Finds Her Family
Like Martijn, Marion was also Dutch, but she had relocated to Canada in 2004. Still, since the story had gone viral, she had learned of the images through a Dutch newspaper. As she flipped through the paper, Marion couldn’t believe she recognized the three figures who appeared in the images.
Marion identified her grandfather, Theo J. Lammers, his wife Elisabeth Lammers-Berveling, and her aunt Thea Lammers. “When I saw the pictures in the paper I felt that it was really special that the pictures were of them,” she said. Pulling out old family photo albums to confirm, Marion reached out to Martijn, and suddenly, the whole story was right in front of him.
Confirming The Camera’s Original Owner
Marion told Martijn of how her grandfather had come to own the camera in the first place, explaining that it was actually a part of his work. Her grandfather had been an architect, and used the then-expensive equipment for his job. Despite the hefty price tag such a camera would have carried, he had brought it along to capture countless family outings.
Marion had portraits of her relatives and photographs of them from their extensive travels. But while she wondered, how could her family’s camera have wound up in a thrift store, Martijn was certain he had found the rightful owner of his vintage camera.
Martijn And Marion Make A Connection
Marion couldn’t understand how the camera had come out of her family’s possession, knowing that her grandfather was a meticulous archivist, and her aunt Thea was a bit of a collector. Regardless, she was excited at the possibility of adding the photographs to her collection of prized family memories.
For his part, Martijn was in awe of the entire sequence of incredible events, saying, “I was so shocked that we had developed a film that’s been untouched inside a camera for decades. And we have been able to find pictures of people on them, and then be able to find the descendants. It’s an indescribable feeling.” Martijn then came to an important conclusion.
Returning The Camera To Its Rightful Owner
After discovering the descendant of the camera’s original owner, Martijn and Marion kept in contact. Martijn wanted to hand the negatives and camera over to the descendant of their original owner, only after such an emotional journey, he decided he wanted to do it in person.
Meanwhile, to keep his own memento of the vintage camera he had found in a second-hand shop, and the surprising discovery of its original owner, Martijn had prints of the four photographs made and framed for his home. The only thing left now, was to figure out a way to travel to Canada to meet Marion, and finish the story of the vintage camera.
Making His Way To Canada
Martijn set about creating a crowdfunding page in the hopes that kind strangers would be as moved by the story of the vintage camera and the roll of film it contained, and help fund the trip. Meeting his monetary goal, Martijn was able to fly from the Netherlands to Canada to meet with Marion.
Martijn couldn’t believe that not only was he able to discuss the people in the photographs with someone who actually knew them intimately, but that he was able to hand-deliver to Marion such sentimental pieces of her family history. Ever since Martijn had found the camera he couldn’t believe the crazy chain of events that had led him there and made a vow to himself.
The Incredible Camera Story Comes To A Close
Martijn was amazed that he had actually managed to track down Marion Jurrjens, and return her photographs. The story of the thrift store camera had an unexpected, yet happy ending. Martijn swore that he’d never simply walk past a vintage camera without checking to see if it contains film.
With the prints hanging in his home, and the story of the vintage camera coming to a close, there was one last thing Martijn realized he still had yet to take care of — he had to break it to his wife that after all that, he was giving away her gift!
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