Found memories…and a lost roll of film

Here’s a fun mystery to try and solve.

For my (recent) birthday, my kids went down to Otto’s, the local “junk and curiosities” dealer and picked out for me the newest additions to my growing vintage camera collection.  In addition, my youngest was excited to have found an original box for the Agfa Billy Compur – produced between 1934 and 1942, and one of the first vintage cameras I acquired.  Inside that box was a roll of 35mm film, two additional negatives of an unknown size (127 film?), and a hand-written note listing which of those negatives the owner wanted to get printed and/or enlarged.

Naturally, I immediately took the film down to get it scanned.  Meanwhile, I wondered what had interrupted the previous film owner’s trip to the photo processing shop.  Had he gotten his film enlarged, but then absent-mindedly stored the negatives in the old camera box to keep them safe?  Or had some untimely disaster struck, just as he was about to get to the photo shop?  And who was he?  When were the photos taken?

In any other country, identifying the owner of the film would be impossible.  But in Namibia, everybody knows everybody.  This is a country of 2.2 million people, of which anywhere from 75,000 (according to the City of Windhoek) to 150,000 at most are white.  Windhoek’s population is 320,000, and if the population is distributed evenly, that’s anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 whites in Windhoek.

Now rewind to 1950.  The entire population of Namibia at that time was less than 500,000!  And Windhoek was only home to 20,000.  The odds that an older white Namibian who grew up in Windhoek knew our photographer start to look very good indeed.

What are our other clues? These were the two individual negatives.  I initially thought they were nuns, but I believe these are pre-1950s nursing uniforms.  I’m not sure what the epaulets are supposed to indicate.

Update, 3 May:  An office colleague identified the venue for the photo below as the Windhoek State Hospital.  The nurses in front are registered nurses, the two in the back are trainees.  Here’s an article that appeared today on the same hospital.


The 35mm roll gets interesting – it’s a man who apparently wanted to document his woodworking project.  He is assisted by another man.  To me, it is not clear from the photos whether this is a pre-apartheid (1948 and afterward) photo – but their clothing makes me think it’s from before 1950.  How many Namibians owned a camera before 1950?  How many owned two cameras?  More on that later.

Update, 3 May – it turns out there were only two carpenters in Windhoek back then.  Both have been identified, and emails have gone out to their kids.  We’re close!!


This is not our photographer, but this is who wanted the pictures to be taken, and who probably ordered the enlargements.  Was his sister or wife a nurse?  What kind of camera is he holding?  It turns out there have been thousands of cameras produced.  I started looking through old Agfa cameras, and the lens/shutter mechanism looks to be from 1930-1955.  It uses roll film, probably 120.  But the biggest clue is the writing on the lens: Voigtlander.  It could have just been the lens producer, but after some googling I narrowed it down to Voigtlander as the manufacturer, and in very little time, tentatively identified his camera as a Voigtlander Vito.  The Vito was manufactured in Germany from 1939-1940, and again from 1947-1950.  Of course he could have been holding a 30-year-old camera at the time this photo was taken, but he looks kind of proud of his camera, don’t you think?

And does this mean that these photos were taken with an Agfa Billy Compur (the box the film came in)?


We don’t know much about this machine – but it’s probably a significant clue.  The note enclosed with the film identified nearly all the photos for 6 x 9 (cm) reprints.  However, the photo above, the one below, and the second-to-last photo were to be printed as 8-by-10s!




The one above is MY favorite.  At first I thought the film was damaged, but it’s the flying sawdust that creates a cool motion effect.






The proud craftsman.

Now to print some of the photos and start asking around town…

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