A Camera Buff Developed an Old Roll of Film to Find Traces of a Cinematic Romance. Now, the Internet Is Searching for the Charming Couple

The cinematic photos of the couple's trip across Europe have fascinated many.

Courtesy of William Fagan.
Courtesy of William Fagan.

It’s a mystery 70-some years in the making. 

On a lark, a camera collector developed a roll of decades-old film that, to his surprise, yielded something magical: nearly two-dozen pictures of an anonymous couple galavanting through Europe, drunk on love and the sites, ageless after all that time. 

Now, the internet is determined to figure out who they are.  

The roll had been in the possession of the Dublin-based collector, William Fagan, since 2015, when he found it stashed in a vintage Leica camera he’d just acquired. From where—or whom—the film came, he didn’t know. This August, he decided to find out. 

Working with a local lab, he soaked the film in a diluted developer for an hour, stirring it every 15 seconds while eating a blueberry muffin. Expectations were low; exposed film often fades over time. That’s what made the discovery all the more astonishing.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

“The result,” he wrote in a blog post explaining his find, “was a revelation: An unknown family, a clear location, and a feeling of sadness that this talented photographer never saw the results of his labor.” 

Fagan salvaged 22 black-and-white frames from the unfinished roll. They depict a young man and woman traveling through Central Europe—Switzerland, perhaps, or Italy—in a they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to BMW. Their stops are all suited for a postcard: a narrow cobblestone street, a mountaintop lake circled in firs. 

Whether or not the two were on a honeymoon, we may never know—but they sure look like it. In one shot, the woman poses on a park bench with a dachshund, while in another, the man squints in the sun outside a charming pastry shop. 

Coded in the pictures, too, is the couple’s apparent wealth—they drive a fancy car in a fancy place, documenting it all with a fancy camera. So the mystery comes with a healthy dose of escapism, like the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripleybefore the murder starts, when it’s all sun-soaked piazzas and expat languor. 

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Fagan was taken with the photos, but not without reserve. “It is strange to find people you don’t know, in such personal situations in front of a camera, many years after their photographs were taken,” he wrote. “I feel more than a little guilty about this as they belong properly to the people in the photos and/or their families.”

That was the purpose of the blog post, he explained: “to contact the family of the photographer and the person who was with them.” 

Then came another surprise: Fagan’s blog post, published on a niche camera review website, went viral. As of this week, it has been viewed 23,000 times. And Fagan and his editor, Mike Evans, were flooded with emails and comments from people trying to use clues in the photos to solve the mystery. 

“What appeals to people about the story? I am probably the wrong person to ask, but I believe it may be partially that they are lovely pictures taken in a lovely part of the world,” Fagan told Artnet News. “I was not intending to create a ‘whodunnit’ out of this, but that is how a lot of readers have treated it.”

“This is a middle-class, reasonably affluent couple who left behind a mystery,” added Evans in an email. “Why should a talented photographer, keen enough to spend the equivalent of $3,000 on a Leica camera, simply abandon it after or during the trip? It makes no sense. There must be some story.”

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Readers pegged the body of water as Lake Como, and identified the city spots as Bellagio and Lenno, Italy. A former BMW executive determined the make of the automobile; another person identified an old steamer on the lake. Both revelations dated the pictures to sometime in the early 1950s. 

So Fagan and Evans had the location and time period. But what about the people?

There’s no shortage of theories, Evans wrote in a blog post, many of which are farfetched: European royalty? American politicians? Germans fleeing justice in Germany after the war?

“I am pretty sure that sooner or later, we will find our their names,” Evans told Artnet News, “although we may never solve the mystery of the undeveloped film.”

“My approach to these photos is entirely altruistic,” added Fagan. “The fact that a lot of people around the world have become fascinated with them is purely coincidental. Sometimes the end does justify the means.”

Do you want to weigh in on the mystery? See more pictures from the roll below.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.

Courtesy of William Fagan.


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