Camera Film Reveals Images of the Mount St. Helens Eruption

A photographer developed the film found at a Goodwill, revealing images of the ash plume from the 1980 eruption that killed 57

Mount St. Helens
Image of Mount St. Helens plume found in a thrift store camera Kati Dimoff

Recently, photographer Kati Dimoff picked up a roll of film from Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, Oregon, not knowing what to expect. When she got her prints, she found something extraordinary, reports Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura: the photos included images of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Dimoff has been hunting down and developing old film in Goodwill cameras for several years, reports Lizzy Acker at Oregon Live. “The first roll of undeveloped film I ever found had a photo of the Portland International Raceway in maybe the '70s or the '80s,” the photographer tells Acker.

In May, Laskow reports, Dimoff spent $20 an old Argus C2, a popular camera in the 1930s and 1940s, with a roll of damaged film still in it. When she got her prints back from Blue Moon, she found a note from the shop asking, “Is this from the Mt. St. Helens eruption?”

In March 1980, earthquakes and small eruptions began at the mountain, which had sat dormant for 100 years. On May 18 of that year, Mount St. Helens finally blew its top, creating a debris avalanche that spread out 3.3 billion cubic yards, sweeping 14 miles down the North Fork Toutle River valley. A lateral blast knocked down trees as far as 19 miles from the mountain, and an ash cloud 15 miles tall clouded the sky. Fifty-seven people lost their lives during the eruption.

A little investigation by Dimoff revealed that the images were indeed shots of the eruption. Several of the images were taken near the John Glumm Elementary School in St. Helens, Oregon, about 30 miles north of Portland. “It looks like whoever took them shot a few from Highway 30 near the Longview Bridge,” Dimoff told Acker last week, “and then they must have moved over to a neighborhood view when the ash cloud was really large.”

The next big question was, whose camera was it? One clue was an image from the same roll of film showing a family with a baby standing in a backyard. Oregon Live published the shot along with its original story, which is how Mel Purvis, who lives in Bend, Oregon, recognized himself in the photo. “I almost fell out of my chair," he tells Acker in a follow-up story.

Purvis believes that the images come from his grandmother, Faye Gardner’s camera. “My grandmother had come to Eugene to visit her great-grandson,” he tells Acker. “It was in 1980 because my son was born in 1979. He would have been a little over a year old.”

Gardner owned a women’s clothing store in St. Helens, and once even broke her leg climbing up part of the mountain. She died in 1981. Purvis says he’s not sure how the camera made its way to a Goodwill in Portland 37 years later.