From Family Snapshots To NASA Photos, Archivists Aim To Solve Preservation Puzzles : All Tech Considered Levi Bettwieser develops found film rolls from his Idaho home, and Dennis Wingo helped rescue early pictures of the moon. But what will happen when historical photos go from analog to digital?
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From Family Snapshots To NASA Photos, Archivists Aim To Solve Preservation Puzzles

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From Family Snapshots To NASA Photos, Archivists Aim To Solve Preservation Puzzles

From Family Snapshots To NASA Photos, Archivists Aim To Solve Preservation Puzzles

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/540914751/541197569" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What do old photographs and NASA images of the moon have in common? They are in danger of disappearing because the technology used to create them is obsolete. We're going to hear now about a project in Idaho that is giving moments captured on film a second life. Matt Guilhem of Boise State Public Radio has the story.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: In his basement darkroom, Levi Bettwieser deftly unspools, cuts and winds film into canisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID POURING)

GUILHEM: Then Bettwieser rinses it in several chemicals. A few more minutes pass.

LEVI BETTWIESER: So we're at the last part of the developing process. So now we can actually open up the tank and see if this film has any images on it for the first time.

GUILHEM: He takes it out and holds it up to the light.

BETTWIESER: It looks like there's a helicopter, a bunch of people on a beach, boats. Just looks like a day at the beach.

GUILHEM: Bettwieser didn't take these pictures, and he doesn't work for a developing lab. His mom was a photographer, and cameras have always been a part of his life. When he started looking for old ones in thrift stores around Boise, he was surprised to find some still had film in them.

BETTWIESER: I figured all the cameras had been opened and all the film was destroyed or it was too old.

GUILHEM: He tried to develop them anyway.

BETTWIESER: All the images from those rolls were - they weren't anything significant, really. They were birthday parties and vacations. But I realized that those were important moments for people. And so I figured, you know what? I need to start finding more rolls of film to process because there's more memories out there.

GUILHEM: He scours estate sales and vintage shops, and some of the rolls go all the way back to the 1930s. He started posting the photos he developed online and called it The Rescued Film Project. On his page, he explained his mission - to reunite film owners with their photos. It seemed to resonate.

BETTWIESER: People started sending me rolls of film. And I went from, you know, finding a roll of film here and there in thrift stores in the valley to a package showing up on my door every day with rolls of film in it.

GUILHEM: Bettwieser spends his days as a videographer. But nights, early mornings and weekends are dedicated to The Rescued Film Project.

BETTWIESER: And when I pull that film out of the tank for the very first time, I'm the very first person who has ever seen that. And that is still what drives me to this day and kind of keeps me going.

GUILHEM: Somebody may have taken the roll decades ago, and for years the memory remained locked away. Then Bettwieser comes along, not only developing it, but chronicling it in a digital archive. In his own way, he's doing what most of us do every day without realizing it.

DENNIS WINGO: Just think about it. Your Facebook, for example, or your Twitter feed - you are creating a daily archive of your life.

GUILHEM: This is Dennis Wingo, an engineering scientist and researcher who's worked with NASA.

WINGO: It's an archive of your thoughts. It's an archive of the interactions with your friends. That has value not only to you, but to your children, your grandchildren and your family 500 years from now.

GUILHEM: About 10 years ago, Wingo undertook his own version of rescued film. His was called the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. The goal was to resurrect high-resolution pictures of the moon taken by the orbiter in the mid-1960s. But Wingo had to unlock the images, which were stored on magnetic tapes. In order to see them, he had to find the somewhat archaic tape readers from the era.

WINGO: Somewhat archaic is being generous. These machines had not been used since probably Gerald Ford was president.

GUILHEM: After a global search, Wingo and his team located what seemed to be the last four machines in existence and extracted the images, which are now part of NASA's archive and posted online. But he's keenly aware this isn't the last time someone like him will have to tackle a job like this.

WINGO: Ten or fifteen years ago, there were several companies that had advertisements - here is a DVD that will last a hundred years. Well, they never thought to include in there, here's a DVD player that will last a hundred years and still be compatible with Apple OS X version 38.9, which won't exist for another 50 years.

GUILHEM: Dennis Wingo saved images of the moon that helped the Apollo missions. The Rescued Film Project is saving photos of bygone Christmases. Levi Bettwieser thinks both add something to history.

BETTWIESER: I love the idea of taking what are these simple moments and putting them on a platform for people to view so that we can have these shared experiences. It makes us all realize that we all kind of do the same things and we are similar as human beings.

GUILHEM: But when computers are eventually rendered obsolete, will anyone want to save all this data again in a new form? Should hard drives be the next magnetic tapes? It could be a challenge keeping the past present. For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "EXODUS")

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