A Fort Langley photographer’s visit to an antique store resulted in a familial discovery for a woman in another province, reuniting her with her ancestors’ White Rock photographs.
An old roll and passion driving him forward
Jim Sollows, a retired healthcare worker and hobby-photographer visited an antique shop in Vancouver, where he was given an old roll of undeveloped film by the shop’s owner.
Due to the age and size of the film roll – it was too large to fit in the developing tank– Sollows had to unroll it to reveal the negatives in complete darkness.
Sollows may love a challenge, especially ones that involve ancient film, but this one was a hurdle he had to convince himself to get over.
“I was actually thinking to myself as I’m doing this, ‘I might as well turn the lights on and throw it in the garbage because there’s no way this is going to work.’”
De-spiraling the reel was time-consuming, as the film kept jumping out of the chemical bath and “trying to coil up around my arm like an anaconda,” Sollows said with a laugh.
Finally, the film co-operated long enough to visit the water bath. With the film no longer completely light-sensitive, Sollows was able to view the film for the first time under the red safe light.
“I held up the negative to the safe light and I saw these pictures there and I audibly gasped and thought, ‘I can’t believe it.’”
What he was looking at were three of six surviving photos of what appeared to be a family. The first three photos could not be salvaged, lost to UV light that was able to leak in over the years, but photos four to six were more protected and thus able to be recovered.
When it comes to “orphan film,” as Sollows has coined it, it is nearly impossible to find the owners. Given that the film was over 90 years old and given to him by a non-owner, he had little hope that the family could be found.
There were no identifiable pieces in the photos either, making the task of solving the mystery even more difficult.
Regardless, Sollows enlisted the help of his friend Steve Bueckert and the two decided to give it a shot, reaching out to social-media users in the process.
Recognition found in next-door province
By coincidence, at the same time the mystery photos went online, Pamela Bonar in Edmonton, Alta. was digging into her family tree.
Bonar’s search led her to B.C. — her family having ties to White Rock and Vancouver — when she discovered the photos Sollows had developed.
“I was really connecting with the eyes of the toddler and I kept going back to the photos and going, ‘Why do I recognize that face? That face looks familiar to me.’”
The toddler in the photos was indeed familiar. She was Lorraine Provan Bonar, Pamela Bonar’s paternal grandmother. Excited, she contacted Sollows via Facebook and continued to dig into her family history to pinpoint every person in the three photographs.
An extremely rare photo was also recovered by Sollows.
Johnny Selmar Carlsen, Lorraine’s uncle who was photographed holding her (first photo), died at about 18 years old from diabetes, and until now, nobody in the Bonar family had ever seen a photograph of him.
Carlsen’s image provided another emotional moment for Bonar. She shared that Lorraine’s uncle bore a great resemblance to Bonar’s own father who the family lost not long ago to the same disease.
“It’s another connection to the family history… it’s like a mirror,” Bonar said.
Seeing these decades-old photographs in person changed everything for Bonar, once she received the physical photos from Owen Law who printed and hand-delivered them to Bonar.
“It was like seeing my father holding my grandmother and since they had been estranged, it was, it really was emotional,” she said.
“This made me feel like everything’s OK, that there’s some peace now, everybody’s resting in peace now and there’s that closure there for me.”
Bonar and her family lived in White Rock for decades, her family even had a farm in the city and every photograph recovered by Sollows and Bueckert was taken around 1926.
The Final Piece
Even after receiving the message from Bonar, Sollows and Bueckert’s minds were still stuck on the photograph of Lorraine’s mother Pauline Hjerdis Carlsen Provan wearing a sweater bearing an image they presumed to be Flash Gordon. Because the 1936 science fiction hero did not debut until a decade after the photos were presumably captured, this one picture still puzzled the duo.
It was not until he received information from a sports reporter based in the U.S. they learned the figure on the sweater was actually an Olympic figure-skater from 1924.
“That was the last piece of the puzzle, it all fit.”
Sollows teaches film photography and accepts donations of cameras to restore and provide to students. To learn more, visit his website at sollows.ca.