Mystery photo part 1: discovering a link to Swain’s past

  • Carrie Wiggins
    Carrie Wiggins

Photographs are a way of telling stories. Joe Holt, with Swain County Schools, had no idea what stories he would unveil when he recently developed film that had been lost in the art room closet of the high school since the 1980s.

The Swain High art teacher donated a bunch of old photography equipment and supplies she had cleaned out of the art closet to Holt after learning he was starting a photography club for students.

Among the supplies were film canisters, which can be reused. When Holt went through them, he found eight canisters that had film in them. While his hopes weren’t high, he figured, why not develop them?

“Instead of throwing it away, I thought it would be cool to see if there’s anything on them. Low and behold, there were images on there! It’s amazing they survived in a dark, dank wet basement in the art teacher’s closet for 30 years,” he said.

Don Forrester, the art teacher back in the day, taught a photography class and had a darkroom in the high school.

In addition to the canisters, there were reams of photographic paper that had expiration dates from the 1980s, and four Pentax cameras, which were admittedly in rough condition, but Holt found still worked. There was also photographic chemical developer, which he found still worked too.

Holt recorded the experiment of developing the film and posted a video to his Youtube channel, where in the darkroom he has recently created at the school, he goes through the process of developing the mystery film and using a lot of the rediscovered supplies.

Among the eight rolls of film, five had images on them. Two rolls of film were particularly interesting and followed an older woman on what look likes a daily chore on the farm, where she’s seen in a few images carrying a bucket. Immediately, Holt recognized that the photographer had an artistic eye.

Among the most intriguing black and white photos is the woman, in her 70s or 80s, with her hair pulled back and her eyes—young and bright— looking off into the distance. She’s wearing a simple collared dress shirt, an apron, and she’s resting one hand against a tree.

Holt decided to share the image on his Facebook page to see if he couldn’t discover who took the photograph. An answer arrived faster than he could have imagined.

“Kathy Wiggins said it was Carrie Wiggins and tagged a relative, Tony Tallent,” Holt explains. “He confirmed, ‘Yes, that’s my grandmother,’ so, we started talking on Facebook, and I sent him a link to all the images. And the really bizarre thing is that every one of those images were his, and he could identify all of them.”

They soon spoke at length, and Tallent confirmed that he took the photos as a student at Swain High School on one of the old Pentax cameras he would check out from the art class.

“Tony has no idea how his images got into that discard pile,” Holt said. “He apparently shot a lot of images of his grandmother.”

Holt was pleased to be able to make this connection to the past.

“The fact that it happens to be such a remarkable person that gives us a connection to the past is pretty amazing too,” Holt said.