Genealogy In The Works: Found Photos with Kati Dimoff

Have you ever read a story that was just so fascinating you had to know more? I knew when I read this story about Kati Dimoff of K Dimoff Photography who found undeveloped photos in a vintage camera of the Mt. St. Helen’s explosion from 1980 — I just had to get in contact with her.

And, lucky for all my readers she responded and we have an interview with Kati Dimoff on the blog today. Be sure to read on and leave comments below about what Kati does and what you think of the Genealogy in the Works interviews. Thank you again to Kati for the interview.  -BC

Kati Dimoff
Photographer Kati Dimoff

How long have you been developing photos from vintage cameras and what prompted you to start doing this? 

When I’m in thrift stores, I’m always looking for vintage prints or slides.  A few years ago I found my first roll of undeveloped film during a search, and I’ve been checking for them ever since.  Every time I’m in SE Portland, I stop into the Goodwill on Grand Ave and check all their film cameras for exposed but undeveloped rolls of film. If I find one, I buy the camera and take the film to Blue Moon Camera and Machine in the St Johns neighborhood to have it developed.

Karen Purvis, Grandmother Faye, Tristan Purvis, Mel Purvis.
Karen Purvis, Grandmother Faye, Tristan Purvis, Mel Purvis.

They are one of the best labs in the country for developing old, expired, or out-of-production film. on may 26th, I bought an Argus C2, which would have been produced around 1938, and it had a damaged roll of Kodachrome slide film in it. Blue Moon developed it for me (Kodachrome was a color slide film, but since 2010 the process for developing it has been discontinued, so it must be developed in black and white) and when I picked up the prints on Monday, June 12th, there was a note on the package that said “Is this from the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption?”

Mt. St. Helen's erupting
Mt. St. Helen’s erupting

Some of the shots showed Mt. St. Helen’s way off in the distance with just the little puffs of ash from the beginning of the eruption, with the Longview bridge in view, so it must have been shot from just off Highway 30.

Two of the shots showed a larger ash cloud, with John Gumm Elementary school in the foreground (in St. Helen’s, Oregon). Another shot included a family in a backyard. That family turned out to be Mel Purvis, his wife Karen, his grandmother Faye and his son Tristan. Mel contacted the Oregonian and told them that the camera had belonged to his grandmother, Faye. I will be mailing to Mel the camera (and negatives and prints).

Mt. St. Helen’s is my favorite place. I grew up on the Oregon coast and would have been almost 2 years old when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted. My parents remember ash falling in our yard even though we were hundreds of miles away. It’s always been a formative childhood event (even though I don’t personally remember it).

My family makes a day trip up to Loowit Lookout every summer. It feels sacred there. The landscape, both what is still damaged and what has grown and come back since the eruption, is awe inspiring. So, when I realized my found film had images of the eruption, it felt like it was meant to be. Also, I was curious how it could be that anyone would shoot images of the eruption (which was such an iconic time here in the Pacific Northwest) and not run right out and get them developed. Instead, leaving them in the camera and somehow forgot about it for 37 years.

I’m a very sentimental person, and I love old photographs. This chance happening has been really special. I think people need to see some good news. The photos themselves aren’t that special in terms of new perspective on the eruption, but the serendipity of it all and the fact that the family was found so quickly is what makes the story. Mel Purvis’s mother passed away last Saturday (she’s the one who would have taken the family photo on mel’s grandmother’s camera). One of my friends commented that his “Mama called to tell her son that she is ok!” Could it get any better than that?

Other than your infamous Mt. St. Helen’s explosion photos, what other types of pictures have you found?

I have found photos of people’s pets, vacations in England, the Portland International Raceway in the 70s or 80s, vacations in San Francisco.

If someone wanted to start doing the same thing you are doing, what would you suggest to them?

Estate sales and thrift stores are great places to look for vintage prints and/or film.

Argus C2, c. 1938
Argus C2, c. 1938

Tell us more about your photography business and how you got started? 

I’ve been shooting professionally for 8 years now. I mostly work with families, though I also do commercial work. I want your photos to feel like the early childhood scene sequence in Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life —  earnest,  timeless, like life is moving at three-quarter speed. Hair and curtains caught in the wind that is almost as loud as the blood rushing in your ears and the leaves rustling above. Weighty and heart-achingly beautiful.

What part of history and genealogy fascinates you the most?

I’m just very sentimental. I want to fill in all the blanks!

You can find The Hipster Historian on Facebook & on Instagram. #onfleekfamilyhistory

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