Uncovering the past

Damaged house
Soldiers in France
Crashed aircraft
A town in France

As more of our daily lives move to the virtual, and for photographers hard copy prints or transparencies become a rarity, it is a treat to find a project that focuses on the world of analogue photography.

Anton Orlov runs the Photo Palace Bus from his base in San Diego, a travelling darkroom project dedicated to this art, and it is this love of the process, as well as the end result, that has led him to not one, but two, magnificent finds.

The most recent involves unearthing glass plates taken in France during or at least around the time of World War I. Whilst on the look out for antique photographic books he came across a French stereoscopic camera called a Jumelle Bellieni, and nestled within he discovered a number of glass plates. He wrote on his blog: "Inside each film chamber I found a stack of neat little glass plate holders (12 total). While four of them were empty the rest contained the original thin plates of glass. The last thing that I ever expected to find though were negative images on those plates."

Combining digital with analogue he set about scanning the plates to reveal some delicate frames shot in what seems to be wartime France and you can see some of them at the top of this page. Perhaps someone out there can identify the location or units in the pictures.

Russian revolution

Now that's pretty special, yet a few days later he posted another update showing an amazing collection of pictures that he had unearthed in 2005 of Russia during the revolution of 1917.

According to Orlov this is the work of John Wells Rahill, a pastor who graduated from Yale University in 1906, and who in 1917 joined the American branch of the YMCA, in particular the War Works Division. He was posted to the eastern front with the Russian troops in Valk, now on the border of Estonia and Latvia. However he spent only a few months having set up a facility called Soldiers House which offered some relaxation for the combatants before most of the YMCA staff were withdrawn via China and Japan.

Funeral Procession in Peking, China Rahill continued his photographic record during his journey home to the US via China

Throughout this time he photographed extensively with his Kodak and on return Orlov writes he had the best of his images hand coloured and converted into Magic Lantern Slides. Orlov adds, Rahill also visited Moscow and there purchased more than 50 slides there from a professional studio.

Back in the US Rahill worked as a pastor though he delivered many lectures on the work of the YMCA during the War, yet Orlov states, it appears that those who worked in Russia were soon blacklisted and labelled as socialist sympathizers. Thus more than 500 glass slides, prints and notes along with the projector were put in storage and only came to light after Rahill's death when his grand daughter found them.

In 2012 Orlov purchased the collection and says, "My aim is to go back to Russia in 2017 and travel along the path taken by John and re-photograph the same locations 100 years after him. I would love to make a new set of Magic Lantern slides."

Here are a few of the magic lantern slides and a link to a film Orlov has made that show some of the black and white prints.

Rahill and three Russian boys in a small village Rahill and three Russian boys in a small village
Soldiers on Omsk train station Soldiers at Omsk train station
Soldiers with gas masks by bunker. Soldiers with gas masks by bunker.
Members of the YMCA entertain the crowd Members of the YMCA entertain the crowd

I wonder if in 100 years - old compact flash cards will be dug up to reveal long lost collections, I suspect not.

You can find out more about Anton Orlov's Photo Bus Project on his website.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    There is so much known, so many photos published of the Western Front, yet the challenges that were encountered on the Eastern Front are all but unknown. These are amazing images. My Great-grandfather and my Grand-father, both Russian Army officers took part in some of those battles. One was lost, one survived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Wonderful witnesses of time and history. Whether one uses an analogical or digital support, any snapshot will remain a frozen moment of time that will be looked back upon with many emotional feelings by just anyone. The people we see on these photo's are long gone but their imprint, that particular moment in time will remain forever as a witness. Shame photography was invented so late in history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Whilst one can store huge numbers of digital images on a computer (and you sometimes lose the lot - my iPhoto file emptied itself for no good reason!), somehow looking at a photo album on a rainy winter Saturday afternoon with the family is somehow much more satisfying; ditto looking at old 8mm cine films.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    It's a shame they didn't have digital photography during the war as many of the photos people think are great from that time are actually total rubbish and only stuck around because they were the only ones available... then Mr Snob and his wife jump on a bandwagon and pretend they are artistically sound.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    So let me get this right:

    1. 'Analogue' photography is good.
    2. Digital is bad.
    3. Negatives and paper last forever.
    4. Digital 'media' will be whisked away by evil spirits in the near future
    5. Analogue photos are inherently worthy of preservation
    6. There are too many digital photos and they're all cr*p.

    Got it.

    Fascinating photos. So glad they didnt have digital 100 years ago!


Comments 5 of 50



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