How social media solved a 1970s-era Newfoundland photography mystery

Philip Hiscock wondered about the subjects of some secondhand film for decades. Facebook helped find them in a few hours.

Philip Hiscock stumbled across a secondhand camera loaded with film in 1991

Philip Hiscock wondered who these people were, and where the photo was taken, for 27 years. (Submitted)

A photographic mystery stretching back to the 1970s has finally been solved — and all within a few hours, thanks to social media.

The three images had intrigued Philip Hiscock from the moment he first developed them from a roll of film in 1991, not only because of their unusual quality but also their obscure origins.

"There were three pictures, beautiful pictures. One in particular is startling in its sharpness, in its art. A beautiful picture of a woman and three young teenaged children — perhaps 13 to 15 or something, on a wharf," Hiscock told CBC Radio's On The Go.

"Just beautifully sharp, beautifully exposed."

The other pictures featured some amateur archery, with some of the same teenagers, as well as a mystery man.

There were clues — a Walt Disney shirt, bell-bottom jeans — but the people's identities and location seemed destined to remain questions Hiscock could only ask himself in his darkroom.

This shot was one of three exposed on the film inside Hiscock's secondhand Kodak camera. (Submitted)

A secondhand find

Hiscock, a photography junkie, had stumbled upon the film in early 1991 in a secondhand shop in St. John's, when an antique camera caught his eye.

"I bought it because when I picked it up it had a real heft," he said.

"I knew just by looking at it, it was a high quality camera from an earlier period."

That earlier period turned out to be sometime between 1917 and the 1930s, as Hiscock realized he was holding a Kodak Autographic 3A Special. It was an early-model folding camera, and used large rolls of film that produced large negatives, similar in size to a postcard.

Philip Hiscock in the CBC studio, with his secondhand Kodak camera. (CBC)

As Hiscock tested the camera's winder and felt its tension, he realized there was film inside.

"I brought it home and as soon as I could I developed that film," he said.

From film to Facebook

The three photographs were the only images exposed. But in the pre-internet era, word about the unusual portraits didn't get far.

"Back then, I printed the pictures, showed them to a few friends, admired them, and that was it. And I put them away," he said.

This man turned out to be Ray Simmons, an avid photographer. The photo was taken at his family's cabin on Bauline Line. (Submitted)

Fast forward 27 years, and Hiscock, enjoying his retirement, came across the images as he scanned old negatives into digital archives.

"I thought, well, I should put these on Facebook, just to see," he said.

"Within an hour, someone said, 'That's Bauline!'"

Hundreds of shares later, Hiscock had his answers. So did the photography subjects, with one of the Facebook commenters saying the man with the bow and arrow was her father, and the owner of the Kodak camera.

"Ray Simmons was his name. He was a little like me, he was a photo nut," said Hiscock.

"He would use old cameras, and he would take pictures wherever he could."

Simmons had taken the pictures, of his wife, children and nephew. The archery shots were from the family cabin on Bauline Line.

The camera and the pictures were likely stolen during a break-in there in the 70s.

While Ray Simmons himself is dead, Hiscock hopes to pass on the prints to his family, through his new connection with one of his daughters.

And perhaps together, they could recreate history.

"I joked with her, I'd like to get them all down at Bauline wharf one day and take that same picture with this camera, 45 years later …"

With files from On The Go

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