Aerial photos of Mount St. Helens before eruption found on old roll of film


Mount St. Helens before eruption discovered on 33-year-old undeveloped roll of film; photo is a screen grab from video at bottom

A roll of undeveloped film discovered by a newspaper's photo archivist proved to have historical value once it was processed. Found on the black-and-white film were aerial photos of Mount St. Helens several weeks before its cataclysmic eruption on May 18, 1980, according to The Columbian.

The Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn, who was killed in his vehicle while in the blast zone covering the volcanic eruption, shot the roll of film in early April of 1980 and for some reason never developed it with the other rolls of film he shot from a small plane during a photo shoot of the smoldering cauldron.

KGW in Portland has the report on the extraordinary find:

What led to the discovery of the 33-year-old roll of film?

The Columbian photo archivist Linda Lutes was contacted by a photo editor who was working on a geology book. The editor had come across a Columbian photo of a logjam on the Cowlitz River, taken on the day of the eruption, and wanted to use the image.


Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn; photo is a screen grab from video at bottom

Lutes went through a couple of boxes labeled "Mount St. Helens" but never found the film with that image. In her search, however, Lutes found a ripped paper bag with negatives falling out.

"I thought I'd better put it in a nice envelope so it wouldn't be ruined," Lutes told The Columbian. "Then I found that roll. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we found what was on it?’"

The Columbian photo editor Troy Wayrynen thought so, too, but wasn't sure anyone processed black-and-white film anymore.

Luckily he found a Portland photo supply company that was able to develop the film.

"I was astonished to see how well the film showed up," Wayrynen said.

"When I saw aerials of Mount St. Helens—a long-gone landscape—it was beyond my expectations."

film from youtube video KGW

Contact sheet showing aerial photos of Mount St. Helens; photo is a screen grab from video at bottom

According to The Columbian, microfilm from 1980 shows other aerial photos of Mount St. Helens were published on April 7 and April 10 and were taken by Blackburn.

Why wasn't this one roll of film ever developed? Tom Vogt of The Columbian has a possible explanation:

Maybe he didn’t feel the images were up to his standards. Maybe he didn’t trust the camera; it was the only roll he shot with that camera on the flight.

But he would have had more than one camera, said former Columbian photographer Jerry Coughlan, who worked with Blackburn at the newspaper.

“We all had two or three cameras,” set up for a variety of possibilities. Riding in a small plane, “You didn’t want to be fumbling for lenses,” Coughlan said.

Blackburn's widow, Fay, who still works at The Columbian, was thrilled with the discovery, telling KGW, "Anytime any portion of a legacy of Reid can come forward, it excites me and it elates me."

KGW NewsChannel 8 also posted this report on YouTube:

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