Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Real Mystery of the Lost Roll of Film

Todd Bieber (pictured) was cross-country skiing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park after a recent blizzard and spotted a canister of film lying in the snow.

What happens next became the subject of a YouTube video that Bieber made, which documents his processing the black-and-white images ("I was in awe of these pictures") and his so-far unsuccessful attempt to track down the photographer.

Now Bieber's video has itself become a story.

A bigger mystery than the identity of the people in the pictures (or behind the camera) is how and why Bieber made a video about it in the first place. On the surface, it seems an innocent attempt to speculate about, and locate, the rightful owner.

But there are doubters as to his motive. Is the whole thing fiction? A hoax? A film-student exercise? A blatant attempt to create a viral video? (And if so, for what purpose?)

Amateur photo sleuths have questioned aspects of the story -- beginning with Bieber's footage of him discovering the film in the snow. Surely a "dramatic" re-creation, yes? Other details are scrutinized in forensic detail -- how could there be 40 shots on one roll? And why only one shot of each image, when "film" photographers usually shoot multiple shots, at varying exposures, for safety? Why are the young men in the pictures themselves carrying digital cameras around their necks? Most baffling, what's all that business about a woman finding $26 and foisting it upon Bieber -- who ultimately uses it to process the film.

Chief among the cynics is "The Online Photographer" blogger Mike Johnston, who writes, "I have to admit that something about this story sets off my BS detectors... The video and the narrative voice seems a bit too slick, the pictures too competent. One or the other I could believe, but both together seems just a touch too convenient. Midway through the roll, the narrator breezily ascribes an esoteric interpretation to one of the photos that requires a knowledge of Russian... Looks like an exercise in 'how to make a video go viral' to me."

But then ABC World News did a straightforward report on Bieber's discovery, including a talking-head interview with Bieber via Skype, without a trace of skepticism.

You have to search no further than Bieber's own Website to see that he "writes, directs, edits, shoots, and produces videos - mostly comedy and documentary, or some combination of the two." He has extensively studied and performed improv comedy, and has worked on Onion News Network video satires. All of that would certainly suggest "spoof."

However, Bieber himself insists, "This story is 100% true. Cross my heart. I didn't realize that would even be an issue for some people. Just interested in telling my story and finding the owners."

What do you think?

We previously told you the amazing story about the young real estate agent who serendipitously discovered a treasure trove of thousands of world-class photographs that turned out to have been taken by a recently deceased nanny named Vivian Maier -- which are now being validated by fine-art photography enthusiasts and displayed in museums. (SEE: "Discovering Vivian Maier")

Comparatively speaking, stumbling upon one roll of so-so tourist snapshots of Coney Island and Central Park doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

The fact that it's stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy perhaps speaks more to the state of nonfiction video, and our increasing inability to distinguish between gradations of fact, reality and objective truth. And that's a challenge facing all videojournalists.

Meanwhile, Bieber's video has surpassed 1.1 million views on YouTube. The official ABC World News YouTube video about Bieber's adventure (which tellingly and alarmingly does not enable embedding!) has attracted only about 4,300 views. That should speak volumes right there.

P.S. Did you lose a roll of film in Prospect Park, or know anyone who did? E-mail Todd Bieber: BrooklynFoundFilm(at)gmail(dot)com .

P.P.S. Cyberhat-tip and thanks to Walter Wick, for alerting us to this story.

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