The Hidden Mysteries of Vintage Color Slides
The untold stories of strangers.
In addition to hoarding cameras indiscriminately and watching YouTube photography videos nonstop, I have recently become the owner of over 800 vintage color slide films. How did this happen? How did I get here? Do I need help? Let’s take a trip back to the fall of 2019 where it all began.
One lovely October day I was relaxing on the couch reading a biography of Vivian Maier when one particular part jumped out at me: before her mainstream success, Vivian’s prints and negatives were regularly sold on eBay by random collectors who had acquired them. Huh. Buying developed negatives on eBay had never occured to me. What else might be out there? What other unknown photography geniuses are having their works auctioned off to the highest bidder?
I guess it makes sense. You can buy almost anything on eBay. I whipped out my computer and got to searching. Sure enough, there were dozens of listings for negatives, slides, prints, you name it, all up for sale or auction. I quickly became fascinated by the plethora of 300, 400, 500+ mystery color slide lots. Think of the wonders that could be in there. World travels, family histories, moments of a different era forever frozen in time on beautiful Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides.
I found one particular lot of approximately 500 slides (mainly Kodachrome) being sold for a bargain price of $25. The seller only posted about 5 slides as an example, the contents of the rest were largely unknown to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was this a good idea? Or am I being completely daft? I decided to drown out those thoughts and clicked those magic words “BUY IT NOW”.
Several days passed and I rushed home from work to find my box of mystery slides happily awaiting me on my doorstep. I got inside as quickly as I could and tore the box open. I was immediately greeted by the beautiful sight of gorgeous Kodachrome slides upon slides from circa the 1950's and 60’s. I grabbed my light pad, my poor man’s loupe (AKA an upside down 50mm prime lens), and started pouring over them.
Travels to Venice, roams around the South American country side, hikes in the Andes, family birthday parties, kids goofing off in school, all preserved on beautiful Kodak color positive film. My heart squealed with glee. I couldn’t believe how vibrant they were. It felt as if I opened a window in time and was actually looking back on these moments in the past. There’s an almost 3D like quality to Kodachrome, and if you look close enough you can actually see the shapes and lines of the images etched into the film. It’s exquisite and breathtaking.
“So what are you going to do with them??” my friends and family kept asking. I didn’t really know but I knew I had to save them. These were likely family photos that had gotten lost or given away over time. It broke my heart to think of them going to waste. Someone had to save them, why not me. I had a cheap little Epson V350 flatbed scanner I had nabbed at the thrift store a few months earlier and figured why not take a shot at digitizing them.
The scanning was touch and go at the beginning. After a good amount of trial and error (and at one point I almost thought of giving up entirely, but I stubbornly persisted) I finally found a flow that worked. For the most part, the slides were in really beautiful condition considering they were all around 50 or more years old. The Kodachrome slides had held up the best. A few Ektachrome slides hadn’t fared so well, with several having completely lost their dye and fading to almost all blue. These ones proved to be the most difficult. I labored over trying to paint in realistic colors the best I could with my limited Photoshop skills. Did they look perfect? Far from it, but light years better than where they had been.
As I worked slowly at scanning I discovered more and more of the stories hidden away within these slides. A beautiful 1950’s couple documenting their trip to Italy. Wanders around Venice and views of the gorgeous Italian coast. Perhaps a honeymoon? A little boy laying in a crib and the same little boy again with jam smeared across his face. A young girl blowing out candles on a birthday cake, and again the same young girl curled up with a book on a boat. Were they related? Siblings perhaps? Two men joking in an office and a little girl and her mother hugging on a sailboat. I’ll never know their stories, but I love imagining the history I’m saving.
After a few passing weeks, I quickly became obsessed with the discovery and imagination with each slide. I found another listing for 300+ slides for $20 and thought, "eh, why not keep myself busy until the end of time?". So far between the two sets I’ve scanned almost 150 slides, leaving me just a mere approximately 650 to go. I’ve also been fortunate enough to upgrade from my flatbed scanner to a Plustek, yielding much better results from the get go, helping cut down some of the headache of scanning. How long this process will take, I have no idea. I do the best to work on it in chunks in between my own photo projects. Each time I get back into it, I’m in awe all over again at the beauty and the hidden histories behind each photo. I hope the wonder never leaves. And ultimately it’s a beautiful reminder that the art we make stays around a lot longer than we ever will. An enduring testament to the time we are here and the moments that are special to us.
All the pictures shown in this article were taken by Danielle Wrobleski. To see more, please head to the links below: