A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

By Richard Becker

Some years ago my late father handed me a cardboard box containing 100’s of his father’s negatives dating from the 1920’s onwards. The vast majority in bulk and number are 4¼” X 3¼” (quarter plate) nitrate film negatives together with a few ¼ plate glass negatives, some of the former clearly shot with a Kodak Autographic 3 camera. However packed tightly into a small box from Lyons’ Strand Corner House, telephone Whitehall 7373 if you want to book a table, were twenty or more rolled 35mm films. In most cases several whole un-cut films tightly rolled together, some with a long ‘Leica leader’ still attached. I examined several of them but the condition of the negatives and tight rolling made it difficult to ascertain much about the contents so I put them to one side.

Recently, I found them again and decided to cut them and store them flat in negative file pages and while doing so scanned as many as I could. They didn’t scan particularly well, much of the trouble came from trying to scan a negative that has been rolled tightly and not looked after for 85 years. I manage to get it flat-ish, then it just pops into a curve the other way like a retracting tape measure. The Agfa film featured here has a thin base and has scanned the best of all, though not without problems.

In 1929 my grandfather bought an early Leica while on a trip to Germany, and he used it throughout the 1930’s and then after the war until it was stolen in the late 1940’s. All but a few of the films seem to have been taken with this camera and almost all date as far as I can tell from around 1930 to 1942. Mostly each film is a jumble of different faces and locations; my father and uncle as young children, other family members, people and places, some familiar and identifiable, others not. Often the film appears to have been in the camera for quite some time as shown by winter turning to spring by the end of the roll, but a few were taken over a short period and these usually feature a walking trip or holiday somewhere in Britain or Europe. None have any information regarding date or contents directly associated with them.

The following photographs are all from one roll of Agfa Isopan F (40 ISO) and document a road trip taken by my grandparents  through the French Alps. Exact dating is difficult though some help comes from the car featured, a Ford Model C 10 which I think he bought in 1935 and still had at the end of the war. Amongst the other films in the box were a couple that are likely to be from the same journey. At the end of one film are a few frames of the car being loaded via crane onto a cross-channel ferry at Folkestone, the rest of that film being photos of friends and family, including my dad aged about 5 or 6 which most likely dates it to 1938. The other is a film starting with photos of Grasse and then Monaco, ending with street scenes of a town that is probably Puget-Théniers. Same car and the same travelling companions. Otherwise I have pieced together the journey from the images themselves.

It says something of my grandfathers ability, and the quality of the Leica that of the 39 frames there is only one complete dud, this where he has forgotten to extend the collapsible lens. With one or two focus is a bit out, and there is camera shake in a few of the images. Exposure is good though in all the frames. Only one image is repeated, why I can’t really see as the first is the best and it is one of the least interesting on the film. I present 37 of them here with only the worst scratches removed and with only minor contrast and exposure tweaking.

They were travelling with another couple, who appear in a number of frames. They are familiar faces from other negatives of around the same time mostly of walking trips, including to the Austrian Alps in 1937, but nowhere are their names recorded and I have so far been unable to identify them. My grandfather clearly thought they would not be forgotten, but then again he has some negatives with labels such as ‘Mary and Sylvia at…’, when Mary was my grandmother and Sylvia his sister, so there is no telling. Many of the ¼ plate sized negatives have at least the date and location either on the envelope, or with the Autographic images as metadata on the negative, but the 35mm negatives came with no information at all. It does show the value of keeping records with photos even if it is for generations yet to come. Some of the images Grandpa printed as post cards (Ilford Bromide postcards, normal white, velvet finish) a few with information written on them, but they were apparently printed in 1954 by which time some of the locations had clearly become muddled.

The first 12 frames are of the medieval walled town of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, with scenes that won’t have changed much in centuries yet alone in the 85 years since these were taken. The photo of the ladies loading a donkey is blurred and the one of the lady in the archway does have camera shake. Possibly my favourite from the whole film is the two women outside the hairdressers, my grandmother on the left with the mystery woman.

Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
1. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
2. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
3. Entrevaux
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
4. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
5. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
6. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
7. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
8. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
9. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
10. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
11. Entrevaux.
Black and white image of Entrevaux in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.
12. Entrevaux.

From Entrevaux they travelled north on the D2202 as 3 photos from the Gorges de Daluis show. Probably all three were taken from near the same spot, the last shows the Pont de la Mariée, a tourist attraction then as now. Question: would an accident have been so readily assumed had it been the bridegroom that fell?

Black and white image of the Gorges de Daluis, France.
13. Gorges de Daluis.
Black and white image of the Gorges de Daluis, France.
14. Gorges de Daluis.
Black and white image of the Pont de la Mariée, Gorges de Daluis, France.
15. Pont de la Mariée,

Then over the Col de la Cayolle and onto the D902. The next stop is 30 miles further north, three images from spots on the descent into Bayasse.

Black and white image of mountains near Bayasse, France.
16. On the way to Bayasse.
Black and white image of a car near Bayasse, France.
17. The Ford by the road near Bayasse.
Black and white image of mountains near Bayasse, France.
18. Near Bayasse.

(Amendment. As I expected someone was able to give the correct locations of the first three photos below. They are on a descent into  Guillestre from the Col de Vars  further north in the Durance valley, not where I thought and not where it says in the paragraphs below. So the views below are still much the same now and not drowned under the reservoir. My sentiments remain mostly true but they did go through Barcelonnette and follow a logical route. Thanks to Nikojorj.)

For a long time I had a problem after Bayasse, I couldn’t locate the next 5 photos at all. Logically they would show the descent into the Ubaye Valley and perhaps ending in an over-night stay in Barcelonnette. But the descent appears to be heading south, not north, and the steep street is not Barcelonnette. So where they went was a mystery, but the photos that follow these are from the Col du Galibier 90 miles further north, with two or more possible routes and several towns on the way including Briançon. I thought the Lac de Serre-Ponçon might be confusing things and eventually I managed to identify the locations of the first 3 as on a descent into the Durance valley on the north side of what is now the huge reservoir. Imagine the whole of the valley below in frame 20 submerged. But how did they end up going south back towards where they had come from before turning to follow the Durance northwards?

At this point I realised that maybe the photos only show part of the story of their journey. Possibly several days have elapsed since the camera was last used, if the weather was dull or wet and with 40 ISO film Grandpa may have kept his camera in his pocket. It looks bright enough in 19, 20 and 21, but 22 which seems to be another location, (and 23 which is the same as 22 but with camera shake) shows threatening clouds. The car parked on the hairpin bend in frame 21 has large rocks chocking the front wheels. Not for the first time I wondered about driving a small car laden with 4 adults and luggage on narrow, un-made mountain passes with 30h.p., 3 gears and, just possibly, brakes of some sort. The final image with the steep street is indeed Briançon, where sadly the ‘Kodaks’ sign is no longer visible on Streetview.

Black and white image of a mountain road in the Durance valley, France.
19. Descent into the Durance valley.
Black and white image of a mountain road in the Durance valley, France.
20. Looking down into the Durance valley.
Black and white image of a car parked on a hairpin bend.
21. In the Durance valley.
Black and white image of rain clouds in a valley in the alps.
22. Threatening clouds.
Black and white image of a street in Briançon, France.
24. Briançon.

So wherever they had been and how much time as passed since Bayasse the next five images are looking south and north from the Col du Galibier, the north entrance to the tunnel and the descent the other side. The man on the left in the last photo is from the mystery couple pictured here as he is often is, carrying what appears to be a large black camera, a reflex plate-camera?

Black and White image of mountains from the Col du Galibier, France.
25. From the Col du Galibier looking south.
Black and White image of mountains from the Col du Galibier, France.
26. From the Col du Galibier looking north.
Black and white image of a tunnel entrance at the Col du Galibier, France.
27. Col du Galibier north tunnel entrance.
Black and White image of mountains from the Col du Galibier, France.
28. Heading north from the Col du Galibier.
Black and White image of mountains from the Col du Galibier, France.
29. On the road down from the Col du Galibier.

Then there is a another jump in location and maybe time as well as the next three photos are of Annecy 130 miles further north. The first two are from the same location, the last looking back towards the first, you can find the scenes easily enough on Streetview though the women doing the washing are long gone.

Black and white image of Annecy, France.
31. Annecy.
Black and white image of Annecy, France.
32. Annecy.
Black and white image of Annecy, France.
33. Annecy.

Now a warning, the next photos show some very irresponsible behaviour, these are adults in their late 30’s with young children in the care of family back home.

That is a lot of water going through what I assume to be one of the hydro-electric barrages near Annecy, which perhaps explains the lack of photographs since Galibier. I have not managed to place which barrage exactly, probably they have been much re-built over time. My grandmother in frame 35 looks terrified in close-up, the male half of the other couple looks to be re-assuring her while holding one camera and with another at his feet. Of his wife there is no sign, though that could be her looking down from the bridge in frame 37.

Black and white image of water rushing over a hydro-electric barrage near Annecy, France.
34. Barrage near Annecy.
Black and white image of water rushing over a hydro-electric barrage near Annecy, France.
35. Barrage near Annecy.
Black and white image of water rushing over a hydro-electric barrage near Annecy, France.
36. Barrage near Annecy.
Black and white image of water rushing through a gorge near Annecy, France.
37. Near Annecy.
Black and white image of water rushing over a hydro-electric barrage near Annecy, France.
38. Barrage near Annecy.

Finally a shaky photo of an alley, back in Annecy probably. My grandfather surprised perhaps that he managed to squeeze that many images from a cartridge.

Black and white image of Annecy, France.
39. Annecy.

I should say as a footnote that my Grandfather was taught well in the art of photography. His great-uncle, my great-great-grandmother’s brother, was Percy Lund who also edited The Practical Photographer magazine under the pseudonym Matthew Surface.

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About The Author

By Richard Becker
Farmer, photographer and naturalist. Living in Wales.
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Comments

Scott Gitlin on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 12/12/2023

Your grandfather certainly knew how to frame a scene in his camera.
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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 12/12/2023

Indeed, but as I said he had a good tutor. This article by Percy Lund writing as Matthew Surface seems as relevant today as 120 years ago.

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Scott Gitlin replied:

Comment posted: 12/12/2023

The article from 1904 was most interesting. Thank you for sharing.

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Steviemac on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 02/12/2023

A most enjoyable essay, and well done regarding your detective work. It sounds as though you may have more discoveries to emerge from your grandfather's archive. He clearly had an eye for composition, and an interest in the everyday as well as the more obvious tourist views. I do hope that you manage to produce some more images and publish them on this site. I suspect that a historical society local to those locations would also be keen to see them.
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STEVEN KOTAJARVI on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

Oh, these are so good. Time travel is real.
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Nikojorj on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

Not quite sure about the barrage, but it could be the downpour of the Chavaroche power plant near the Gorges du Fier, or may be the Gorges themselves (a bit higher) with quite high water.
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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

The Gorges du Fier/Chavaroche is I think the most likely spot, but I can't find a photo to match. Probably other people only go into the gorge with cameras when the water level is low. It must have been deafening as well as scary.

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Nikojorj on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

Great pics! The frames 19 to 21 are in the descent from the Col de Vars to Guillestre on N202 (now D902), you can see the Montdauphin fort on the 20 (taken from around 1350m above Peyre Haute?). See the historical maps on https://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/carte?c=6.652842005651634,44.64296650632443&z=14&l0=ORTHOIMAGERY.ORTHOPHOTOS.1950-1965::GEOPORTAIL:OGC:WMTS(1)&l1=GEOGRAPHICALGRIDSYSTEMS.MAPS.SCAN50.1950::GEOPORTAIL:OGC:WMTS(1)&permalink=yes
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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

Excellent, thank you for that, I will add an amending paragraph. It does mean they followed a route much nearer the one I was expecting. I drove the Col de Vars (on Streetview!) but didn't find this spot. The Durance further downstream seemed a much better fit, but I was wrong.

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Nikojorj replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

You cant' find it on Streetview indeed : the road has been straightened (or, better said, rerouted), and one can only see a few curves of the old route (and what seems a toposcope?) in the bushes above the Peyre Haute hamlet.

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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

I tried to match the shape of the peaks and look for similarities in the geology and vegetation. I thought I had it with the north side of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon.

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Geoff Chaplin on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

That's quite a significant piece of work and research on your part, well done. The photos and history make an important document. I remember in the early 1950s my father and uncle preparing for the trip to Exeter from Leicester via Roman road, prepping the Morris 8 (similar vintage to you grandfather's car) and planning the journey. Your grandfather's trip must have been quite an adventure. As you say his photographic skill was significant, I wish I got as many successful photos per roll!
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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

I have concluded that if you were raised to take photos on glass plates, or 118 roll-film, you made every exposure count. A Leica with 36 exposures must have seemed the ultimate in miniaturisation. Note their traveling companion with 2 large cameras and maybe 7 exposures between them.

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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

They also visited an ancient aunt in Paris on the way down. In 1946 or 7 they went back to try and find her, and also went through the Alps again. That was a lot more challenging.

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Alexander Seidler on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 01/12/2023

Thanks for sharing this beautiful story.
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Anthony on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

More please!
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Richard Becker replied:

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

Possbly, but this was the film with a story and a variety of photos.

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Reinhold on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

This is so incredible. Thank you for sharing!
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Peter Roberts on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

A great story and great images. All credit to you for persevering with the scanning and research. The coiffeur shot and the one of the washerwomen are stunning and to my mind valuable social documents in their own right. A Leica and Agfa Isopan (how I loved Agfa film back in the day) is a match made in heaven, but as always so much depends on the person behind the lens. Your grandfather seems to have been such a person. Thanks very much for sharing this episode in his life.
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Frederik on A Roll of My Grandfather’s Film – Agfa Isopan on his Leica I

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

Nice and funny! Better than I would expect of such an old filmrol.
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