Have you ever run out to a shoot and realized that despite your best laid plans, you left something behind? Packed up, boarded a plane, and realized you left your memory cards or film at home? How far back did you have to go to get it? Imagine realizing that you had to travel 238,900 miles? Or worse, 170 years into the past.
Many camera aficionados know that there is a treasure trove of Hasselblads on the moon. In an effort to reduce the weight of the Lunar Lander for its eventual return to Earth, a lot of equipment was left behind. Despite heavy modifications to make the cameras lighter, they still had to be jettisoned to make lunar liftoff easier. Over the seven different Apollo missions that landed on the Moon, 12 Hasselblads were left behind. Add in all the lenses, and you have a significant amount of camera equipment collecting dust.
Did you know that NASA also left behind three RCA motion cameras? Starting with Apollo 15, NASA equipped their astronauts with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). The LRV had a mounted RCA camera. With Apollo 15, NASA also began to try to remotely operate the camera to capture the launch of the Lunar Lander. NASA failed to capture the lunar liftoff of both Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 due to the lag in communications. NASA was finally successful in capturing Apollo 17’s Lander liftoff.
Of course, this meant that the cameras had to be left behind. Anyone interested in a long-range salvage operation?
As a member of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Frank Hurley took hundreds of images and hundreds and hundreds of feet of motion capture. After their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by the ice pack, Sir Ernest Shackleton led his expedition across some of the roughest seas in the world to safety. In order to make this arduous journey, the expedition had to leave behind almost everything that wouldn’t help them survive. Almost everything. After diving below the ice to gather as many glass plates as possible from the sinking ship, Hurley sat with Shackleton and reviewed the plates to determine which images they would pack for the long, dangerous journey home. Those that didn’t make the cut were smashed to prevent second-guessing.
Thanks to their desire to save as much history as they could, we’re left with a visual record of their endeavor. Just imagine what was left behind.
Those interested in expedition history are aware that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to successfully climb Everest in 1953. But, did you know that George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine attempted to climb the mountain in the summer of 1924?
Unfortunately, both Mallory and Irvine died on the mountain. Much has been written on whether or not they made it to the top and died on the way back down, or whether they died on the way up. Nobody has been able to definitively prove what happened to the pair. However, Irvine wasn’t only a climber, he was also an amateur photographer. As part of the expedition, he was responsible for taking care of the cameras. Irvine was carrying a Kodak Vest Pocket Camera when they set off on summit day.Since reports from other climbers of “English dead” surfaced in 1979, several expeditions have gone in search of Mallory's and Irvine’s bodies. One of the goals of these expeditions has been to locate and develop any film from Irvine’s camera. If the pair had made the summit, they surely would have taken photos. Kodak participated in the expedition by creating a process on how to deal with the camera or film in case it’s found. At least back in 1999, Kodak scientists were convinced that they could develop the film if it was located.
Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but Irvine’s body, along with his camera, are still missing. Perhaps as more and more snow melts off Everest’s approaches, Irvine’s body may be found. If someone could manage to develop the frozen 100-year-old film, perhaps we’d finally find out if Mallory and Irvine made it to the top.
The Franklin Expedition
Captain John Franklin set off in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845 aboard the MS Erebus and the HMS Terror. Every single sailor on both ships died. The failure of the mission is still somewhat of a mystery.
Finally, after 170 years, the Franklin shipwrecks were found in 2014 and 2016. Although the frigid water has helped to preserve the ships, the age and fragility of the wrecks means that they haven’t been fully explored. Franklin’s list of stores included a daguerreotype camera and plates. The ambition of any explorer would be to find the plates and hopefully develop them. There is hope that this kind of evidence would help to uncover what went so wrong with the expedition.
I personally don’t believe that daguerreotype plates that are closing in on 200 years old will be recoverable. A little research into how to care for and store valuable daguerreotypes reveals just how fragile the sensitized photo image layers are. They are highly susceptible to tarnishing and abrasion, because the image exists only on the surface of the plate. I’m sure the temperature and darkness of the waters will have helped to maintain the images, but the salt water and freeze/thaw cycles will likely have destroyed the images long ago.
The Case of Louis Le Prince
Years before The Lumière brothers, Louis Le Prince filmed moving picture sequences. Shortly, before the first display of his new projector technology in 1890, Le Prince mysteriously vanished from a train. Although he was seen boarding his train, neither his body nor his luggage were found.
Many people believe that Le Prince was assassinated by Thomas Edison’s financial backers who wanted to ensure that Le Prince didn’t patent his projector before Edison.
If we were able to find Le Prince’s luggage and his papers, perhaps we’d be able to determine if his US patents would have had a better chance of success against Edison’s.
The Babushka Lady
There is so much myth and legend surrounding Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 that the truth is probably lost to time. Among the cast of characters, there is the umbrella man, Abraham Zapruder, Badge Man, the Three Tramps, and the grassy knoll. In relation to missing cameras, there is also the Babushka Lady.
The Babushka Lady is a nickname given to a woman who was standing relatively close to Elm Street when JFK’s motorcade drove by. In both the Zapruder and Mark Bell films, she can be seen clearly holding a camera to her face at the moment of assassination.
Over the years, a few people have claimed to either be, or to have met, the Babushka Lady. A Kodak employee claimed that while he was developing the Zapruder film under the supervision of the FBI and Secret Service, the Babushka Lady brought her film in. The film was developed, but only contained blurry images. According to the employee, she left without providing any ID. Given the amount of information gathered that day, I find this story hard to believe.
Beverly Oliver claims that she is the Babushka Lady. Oliver claims that immediately after the assassination, she was approached by men claiming to be FBI agents who demanded her film. Worried she’d be arrested for the pot she was carrying, she handed the film over without a fuss.
There are a lot of holes in Oliver’s story that have been fleshed out in dozens of books and movies. I also find her story hard to believe.
I wonder if there is still undeveloped film sitting somewhere that might cut through the fog of myth that still swirls around November 22, 1963.
Have I missed any famous missing or left behind cameras or film?
Images in the Public Domain or otherwise attributed.