Last September, I wrote a post about a roll of unprocessed Kodak Super XX 120 film (which turned out to be 5 rolls) that I developed – 62 years after it was shot. You can read all about what I now refer to as the “miracle of the 5 rolls” here.
The skillfully shot photographs that emerged depict Vancouver’s Chinatown and False Creek in April of 1956. As I mentioned in Part 1, there was a name included on the wrapper that I thought may have been the name of the shooter, but I needed to investigate all possible leads in order to determine who shot these wonderful images and to figure out why the films weren’t processed back in 1956.
If you aren’t aware of the story thus far, I strongly recommend you take to the time to get up to speed before continuing with this post.
After finishing my investigation the mystery the photographer behind these images has been solved! Well, sort of.
From 2006 to 2013, I worked at CBC Vancouver as a Media Librarian in the English Television Archives. While I was there, I saved an exposed but unprocessed roll of film from being tossed out. The roll was in a box of odds n’ sods (unexposed film rolls, take-up reels, and other related non-photographic material) kept with CBC staff photographer Alvin Armstrong’s collection of still photographs – negatives, positives, prints, and mounted enlargements. Armstong was the in-house still photographer at CBUT from April 1, 1954, to April 3, 1973. During his 19 year career, he took about 10,000 photographs (negatives & transparencies); all of which were shot on either 4×5 sheet film or 35mm roll film.
The unprocessed 120 roll film was wrapped in a paper label with “Ron Kelly in Chinatown in April 1956” written on it. Since I was intimately familiar with Alvin Armstrong’s work I immediately recognized his distinctive handwriting on the label. Was this film shot by Armstrong but never developed?
It was possible but seemed out of character with what I knew about Armstrong and the way he worked. He kept meticulous records and this film was not recorded in his logbook. It was also 120 medium format film – he didn’t shoot medium format film for CBC. Also, the fact that is was kept separate from his collection was also a red-flag, but I added him to the list of people that were possibly responsible for these images.
What about the name on the wrapper? Ron Kelly was a producer/director at CBC Vancouver in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he produced and directed a CBC Vancouver film unit program that was set in Chinatown called ‘Summer Afternoon’. It is a fantastic visual document of mid-century Chinatown. [More about ‘Summer Afternoon’ at the end of this post.] It is very likely these shots were intended to be used as location scouting shots for ‘Summer Afternoon’ and the exposed film was given to Alvin Armstrong for safekeeping. But they were never used as such, or even processed for that matter! Why? So, Ron Kelly was also added to the list of potential photographers.
My former colleague and (now retired) Senior Media Librarian at the CBC Archives, Colin Preston, suggested a third possibility – Jack Long, the cinematographer for ‘Summer Afternoon’. It would make sense that he would be the one to take scouting shots for this production. Sadly Jack Long, now deceased, would not be able to provide any insight into this mystery, so we would have to rely on the memories of others.
One telling image shows the photographer reflected in the window of a boat that he is taking a photo of. We can’t see the face of the person, but you can see his hairline and that he is wearing a trench coat (neither very distinctive). It also looks like he is using a Leica-style or folding medium format film camera.
Since his name was on the wrapper, making him the obvious person responsible, I started my search with Ron Kelly. It took a little digging, but I was able to obtain his landline phone number as, at 90 years old and living in small-town Ontario, Ron Kelly did not use email or social media. Colin Preston made the cold call since he was more familiar with Kelly’s work at CBC. He told Ron Kelly the story of the photographs and that we believed that they were associated somehow with the production of ‘Summer Afternoon’. During their conversation, Ron Kelly revealed that he was not the photographer and that he was quite sure Jack Long wasn’t either.
Ron Kelly was generous enough to provide his mailing address so that I could send him a hard-copy of my original post and prints of some of the photographs including the image of the photographer above. This way he could review the material in case it might jog a long lost memory and to see if he recognized the person in the reflection.
Several weeks passed when out of the blue I got a telephone call from Castleton, Ontario, it was Ron Kelly. We had a nice chat during which he confirmed that he did not take these photographs and neither did Jack Long. He explained that Long was a very short man, only 5’3″, and he didn’t physically match the photographer in refection. He wished me luck on my search.
So then we were back to CBC staff photographer, Alvin Armstrong now the primary (only) candidate. He died in 1989, but I had contact information for his son, Arthur, who I had first met in 2012 at the launch of the VHF The WALL outdoor installation I curated that featured one of his father’s photographs.
In my email, to Arthur, I gave him the background to the mystery and explained the reasons why I had doubts and didn’t think it was his father who shot these images. I also asked him to take a look at the reflection image to see if he thought it was Alvin. This is what he wrote back:
I had a look at the photo that you sent me along with the photos on your blog. I cannot say with a certainty that the photo you sent me is my father. I am attaching a photo of Dad taken in 1956. As you can see the hairline is similar. I can also tell you he wore a long beige raincoat as did many men of that era. I recall there was a Leica camera around the house, but that was 35mm. Dad did shoot 120 film but used two Rolliflexs that he owned.
If his handwriting was on the film wrapper, he must have been given it or taken the photos. However, two things lead me to believe it was not my father. Firstly, he would never have put 5 rolls of film on one spool. Secondly, he would have cataloged it in some manner. Neither of these actions fit with his personality.
I am sorry to add to the mystery of these photos and hope you get it sorted out. Please keep me posted! Thanks for keeping the memory of old Vancouver alive.
I had to agree with Arthur on his perception of the situation. Though he thought there was a possibility that the man reflected could be his father, the other evidence does not fit with Alvin’s photographic practice. For some reason, Armstong was the caretaker for this film, but we both believed he was not the shooter.
Having run out of possible candidates, the mystery of who is responsible for these images is “solved” in that we have come to the end of the investigation. Therefore, unless new evidence appears (highly unlikely due to how much time has passed) all we know is (with some certainty) who isn’t responsible (Armstrong, Kelly, or Long) for these fabulous documentary images.
Every time I look at the images I am glad that my curiosity didn’t allow this collection to be lost forever. If you ever find an old roll of exposed film I urge you to take the time and expense to get it developed, you never know what exposing the latent image could reveal.
*2021 update: A few people have commented that the most likely scenario is that 5 rolls of film were already developed and were then rolled onto one spool and covered with a couple of winds of backing paper for protection many years ago. I had previously wondered the same thing but didn’t know what the effect of processing film twice would have on the rolls. It seems that processing film twice would have no effect on film once the film has been fixed once. This would explain why the decades old, loosely rolled film had such great looking negatives with no fog. The technician at The Lab would not know that the film was already processed since they were working in full darkness and all film feels the same in the dark.
In 2021, I wrote about this discovery in the latest issue of Geist magazine: Geist 118.
If you haven’t seen ‘Summer Afternoon’ yet, I strongly recommend you take half an hour to do so. When you compare the visuals in the TV film with those found in the still photos found on the 5 rolls of Kodak Super XX 120 film you can clearly see that they are connected.
Columnist John Kirkwood had this to say about “Summer Afternoon’ in the August 22, 1956 edition of the Vancouver Sun: “The program skillfully produced to capture the desired mood and with a light touch of humour was, of course, a work of art, and, except for a rather too insistent musical score, was an outstanding show”.
The Province Newpaper’s TV critic, Les Wedman, was more critical about the program. Here is his review from August 21, 1956:
I think the passage of time has improved the overall impression of “Summer Afternoon” as we view it with a nostalgic lens. I’ll let you be the judge…
Pacific 13 – Summer Afternoon, air date: 1956-08-20, length: 28:25
“Presented without commentary, this exploration of Vancouver’s Chinatown follows the wanderings of two young boys at play in and around the shops, streets, and False Creek waterfront.”
‘Street photography’ means something quite different today… it often refers to photojournalists, documentary photographers or flanuers like Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fred Herzog, and the newly discovered Vivian Maier. But back in the hey day of street photographers (1930s-1940s ) the term ‘street photography’ described a photographer who solicited strangers on the street offering to take their photos for a fee.
In the ‘Great Depression‘, people barely had money for the necessities in life much less for any extras such as family portraits taken in a studio. During times of economic depression people often have to re-invent themselves and the way they do business. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s in North America, when studio photographers had to move from the refined space of the studio, to the expanse of the outdoors – they were literally, out on the street.