Many years ago, Joan Tortorici Ruppert’s mother handed her a box full of negatives. You see, Joan’s father was an avid photographer, and Joan began to be interested in it too. So, her mom wanted her to have these photos that he’d taken and developed back in the late 1930s.
Joan took this “time capsule” and carefully scanned all the photos. She did it all without a lightbox, enlarger or a scanner, but she came up with a DIY approach that let her quickly cull through hundreds of negatives. And finally, she ended up with an admirable collection of black and white photos that show life as it was in pre-war Chicago.
“In the late 1930s my father was just out of high school and an avid amateur photographer,” Joan explains. He died when she was very young, but it looks like she got an interest in photography from him. Many years after his death, she got the shoebox stuffed with his negatives from her mom. She says that the photos were taken mostly in and around his neighborhood on Chicago’s Near West Side. And after taking photos, her dad would also develop the negatives himself.
“They were obviously from a makeshift darkroom,” Joan tells DIYP. “Hand-trimmed, oddly sized, dotted with nicks and imperfections.” The shoebox stayed with Joan for some time before she scanned the negatives. In the meantime, it fell victim to a basement flood a few years ago. “In a panic, I dumped them all into a bucket with water and Photo-Flo and strung them to dry,” Joan says. But recently, she unearthed the shoebox, took the negatives, and began her journey through time.
Considering that the negatives had been through a lot, scanning them was quite a challenge. “Culling through hundreds of negatives without a lightbox, enlarger or a scanner involved a lot of guesswork and a great deal of wasted time,” Joan tells us. However, she decided to improvise so she can make the culling faster.
To make a “light table,” Joan simply opened a blank Word document on her computer. This gave her a bright and completely white background, and she would attach a negative to it. Then she’d open her iPhone camera in “inverted colors” mode. She would use it to view the negative and then decide whether to use it or discard it.
Even after culling the negatives, during scanning, some of them proved to be beyond salvation. They were underexposed, overexposed, or simply too damaged. Still, Joan did her best to save those that could be saved. After scanning, she used Capture One and Photoshop to make the best out of the scanned negatives.
As a result of her efforts, Joan ended up with a truly precious collection of photos.
“What I discovered was an amazing, sometimes hilarious window into city life in pre-WWII Chicago through the eyes of a young man itching to find his place in it while simultaneously exploring photography and all its challenges and rewards.”
From what I can see, Joan’s father wasn’t merely curious about photography; he was also pretty good at it. His images give us a glimpse into some different times. Even I found them emotional, and I can only imagine how emotional it was for Joan. But it also made her thought about the differences between the age that her father photographed and the age that we live in today.
“It’s an interesting contrast to think about how today just about everyone walks around with a camera in his or her pocket vs. in the late ‘30s when teenagers were equally curious about the world and anxious to capture it, but had far less access to the necessary tools.”
I love it that Joan has brought together the old times and the new ones. She used modern tools to cull through the negatives, as well as to scan and edit them. And thanks to the internet and social media, we get to see these priceless images, too. Joan has published them on a dedicated webpage and Instagram account.
“I never had the chance to ask my dad about the people or situations captured in his photos. But this is the next best thing.”