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30-year-old film exposes all kinds of old memories

In 1986, downtown Fargo looked pretty different than it does today. Special to Forum News Service1 / 3
Tammy Swift, columnist2 / 3
Tammy Swift remarked that this photo from 1986 "must have been taken at the cast party for 'Wonder Years.'" Special to Forum News Service3 / 3

I've moved four times in the last six years. And each time, I brought along a cardboard check box filled with rolls of film.

That's right, kids. Film. The animal skins we used before photography became a sea of digital pixels. I guessed the rolls came from sometime in the late '80s or early '90s, as they smelled vaguely of Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth cologne. Every time I re-discovered them, I thought, "Someday, I really am going to develop these."

While cleaning out my storeroom a few weeks ago, I stumbled across them for the umpteenth time — this time, with a box of slides. I was tired of schlepping these things around, but I wasn't sure who still develops film in 2018. Would it be like the barely concealed mirth you see on the sales guy's face when you bring a flip phone into the Verizon store? Did I need to track down a DeLorean to time-travel it back to a Woolworth's photo counter in 1987?

Finally, someone recommended Harold's Photo in Fargo, so I decided to take the plunge. It turned out that processing 1980s film costs a lot more than it did in the 1980s, but they were very professional and helpful.

As I experienced that old-school sensation of waiting for my pictures to come back, I wondered what could be on them. I was a brand-new reporter at the time, so they could have been taken on assignments. I imagined pictures of high school students dressed like Bel Biv DeVoe and posed awkwardly in front of lockers and farmers, dressed unlike Bel Biv DeVoe, posed awkwardly in front of combines.

On the other hand, they could be personal pictures taken with my equally young reporter friends. I shuddered to think what might surface back then, with my prefrontal lobes just barely done ripening and my love of Zima.

I needn't have worried. The color was so degraded in the film rolls that the photos looked like they'd been soaking in Easter egg dye. They were at one of my favorite haunts with my reporter pals: the Shamrock Bar in Dickinson. Others had been taken on an evening trip to Killdeer Mountain with the same friends. Nothing overtly embarrassing there, although our guy friend's rolled-leg "jorts" looked comically small.

The slides, however, were a different story. They dated from 1986 when I was taking a photo class at NDSU. We had been assigned to create a photo essay for our final grade. I must have been studying Dorothea Lange at the time, because I decided to capture the different income classes of the city by juxtaposing photos of Fargo mansions and Cadillacs against those of shabby homes and downtown Fargo. Thirty years ago, downtown was far from the thriving and well-groomed hipster hangout of today. Many buildings were vacant, and I remember how the wind blew garbage into the entryways of empty storefronts.

So in the end, I wound up with my own little time capsule of 1986 Fargo. The photos are strangely fascinating today, if only because the city center has changed so dramatically.

Incidentally, I also wound up with photos of my NDSU University Village roommates, including one in which my haircut makes me look remarkably like Fred Savage.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand nerds.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.

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