Student Brings Grandfather’s WWII Experience to Light in Community Ed Darkroom
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Rachel Rosenbaum says developing film can be either extraordinarily therapeutic, or one of the most frustrating activities in the world. She should know – she just spent the past two years in a darkroom with PCC Community Ed developing dozens of negatives, bringing her Grandfather’s experience during WWII to light. She celebrates her accomplishment later this month with a gallery exhibition at Blue Moon Camera & Machine in St. John’s (and she’s featured on the back cover of Communities for winter)! We’ve checked in with her to learn a little more about this fascinating project!
What is the project you recently completed, with the assistance of Community Ed courses?
A photography display of my grandpa’s photographs from WWII! I have been interested in film/darkroom photography since high school, however it has been a very intermittent hobby until the past couple years. A little over a year ago I started working on photos from my grandpa’s negatives, and during this time I made large fiber-based prints of 35 photos. I initially had 170 negatives and this is what I choose from. Eventually we found other negatives as well, so I have a couple hundred more negatives from my grandpa now. Instructor Mike Riches connected me with Blue Moon Camera and Machine and they agreed to show my photos this November (they do monthly displays of photographers’ work).
How did you learn about your grandfather’s negatives?
I don’t remember exactly how it came up. I knew my grandfather had a darkroom in his house at some point. When they moved out of that house and into an independent living facility my family divided up everything from the house. My dad mentioned that his brother Ken had negatives from the war specifically. I got in contact with Ken and he mailed me the negatives.
Coincidently while I was working on this project, I went to my aunt’s house to look through some kitchen items and furniture that she was getting rid of to see if I wanted anything. While we were exploring the basement I noticed camera cases and it was my grandpa’s old camera’s which she was happy for me to take. This is how I ended up with the camera that he actually used to take the photos with!
About 10 years ago my second cousin had scanned and posted all my great uncle’s negatives from the war. I reached out to him to see if he had those negatives but the family had donated to a museum.
Did you ever have a chance to hear stories about his experience (if so, what did he tell you?)?
I never personally discussed the war with him. When I was younger it wasn’t something that occurred to me to learn more about. Now I obviously wish I could ask him a million questions. He moved on to career and family after the war. I don’t think he discussed it much in general. However a son of someone else in the unit became very interested in his parents history and his path. He flew to Portland to interview my grandpa about his time in the Army while researching for his book, eventually publishing it in 2003.
After I completed my first print of the war photos (October 2018) I attempted to use social media to see if I could find family members or to see if anyone in the unit was still alive. It turned out that everyone has passed away with the exception of possibly one nurse – I confirmed this in the last month. The final member, a nurse, passed away a few months ago.
What inspired you to turn this into a big project with a photography exhibit?
I was already working on turning the negatives into prints. It was so exciting to have these old negatives and get a peek into that part of my grandfather’s life. Mike encouraged me and facilitated getting an opportunity to make it into an exhibit at Blue Moon in St. Johns. It was also exciting for my family – so they have also been very encouraging. I talked to my extended family more frequently and I feel closer to them than I was before. The project created so many connections and new friendships.
How have PCC courses/programs helped you to develop your skillset?
Intermediate/Advanced darkroom is a community! I have learned so many different things from Mike, but also from peers in the class. I have learned how to use split filter printing, improved dodge and burn skills. Learned about different printing styles. Printed with fiber paper for my first time. Developed and printed medium format film for the first time. Improved at examining photos to understand the contrast, or where the eye will be drawn to. I learned how to use my grandfather’s cameras from other students in the class who use similar ones. The list of skills might be endless ….
What would you say to prospective students thinking about taking Intermediate/Advanced Darkroom with Mike Riches?
It is a great class. Everyone has such a wealth of knowledge and you get to choose what skills or technique you want to learn or focus on.
Is there anything surprising/interesting you learned about your grandfather and his experience as a result of this process?
I already knew he was in the Army in the war and I knew we had letters he had wrote. So nothing was specifically surprising. However in general the photos bring it to life and make it more “real.” I had never thought much about what it must have been truly like. My grandpa wrote my grandma a letter every day that he was away. I have started sorting through these to see if there are more clues behind the photos, and to learn more about his experience. My grandma also saved news articles from the time.
What are you hoping people may learn from your upcoming photography exhibit?
I think it’s just a nice way to honor my grandfather and all Veterans. I ended up with more questions than answers during this project. I hope it inspires people to connect with their family and learn their own stories.
How do you intend to keep exploring this subject matter (including both WWII and photography)?
I have been trying to figure out how to focus my attention as this could be a never ending process. The photo’s leave you with so many questions. I would love to connect with remaining family of people from my grandpas unit. I also am exploring other places I might be able to do another exhibit.