Aug. 7, 2012 -- Three years after dropping his digital camera into a small Adirondack creek on a summer trip, a New York man will finally get his photos, thanks to some dogged investigative work on the part of a Vermont man.
John Noerr, a teacher from Poultney, Vt., found the long-lost camera at the bottom of a small stream while he was on a morning walk with his son on July 5. The camera was covered with mud, but the memory card, while filthy, was remarkably intact. Noerr, 39, meticulously cleaned it, picking out pieces of dirt with a sewing needle, and dried it before he found out it worked. He began unraveling the mystery of who had owned the camera.
"Opening the card was fascinating," Noerr said. "The very first picture, I imagined that it was the first picture that he took. All the way to the last picture. That was of rushing water."
There were 581 photos in all and Noerr approached it like a puzzle, mining each one for clues.
Though the photos weren't sorted, randomly divided between folders in a non-chronological order, he studied the scenic shots from the Adirondack vacation, photos of relatives, celebrations, city streets and signs, and began to piece together a narrative.
"Some of the pictures had enough information in them that I was able to put them in a place, put a dot on a map and say, 'This is where the camera taker stood.' I was able to build up enough places…I started to create an image in my mind of where the person lived," said Noerr, who first told his story to the Post-Star of Glens Falls, N.Y.
Many of the photos were taken around Brooklyn, Noerr discovered. There was a self-portrait of a woman who he initially imagined to be the owner. (This assumption would prove to be false).
In the end, it came down to a handful of pictures: the front stoop of a house numbered 327, one of the sky, and a shot of a corner of a building with "very unique stone work" and a visible sign for 3rd Street.
"I went onto Google Earth Street View and started looking up every 3rd Street I could find," he said.
That placed him in the camera owner's neighborhood, where other identifiable buildings and doors popped up that Noerr recognized from pictures on the memory card. Faster than he imagined, he found the house, No. 327, on Street View, tracked down the building's owner, and used Facebook and Twitter to contact the family.
The woman who appeared in the self-portrait replied to his message. She was the sister of the camera owner, Michael Comeau, who, Noerr learned, had dropped his camera from a bridge while camping in the Adirondacks in June 2009.
"I was standing on this little bridge taking pictures. I kind of fumbled my tripod and my camera fell in the water," Comeau, 34, recalled. "I jumped in and couldn't find it. I looked for it for about a half hour …. It wasn't that expensive, but at the time, I was unemployed and I didn't have money for another camera, so I was very upset. I was pissed off about losing all the pictures and everything."
Comeau wrote it off and the sting of losing his camera and a summer's worth of photos from the memory card faded.
Fast forward to August 2012 when Comeau's sister told him his lost camera had been found.
"I thought it was a miracle," he said, ""I had wondered what happened to that camera. Is it floating out there somewhere?"
Comeau said he expects to receive the camera later this week and is eager to see the photos. One photo on the memory card is one of the last of his late mother.
"That was a driving force," Noerr said when asked why he went to such lengths to reunite the camera with its owner. "She was obviously sick in late or mid-stage cancer. She looked sick or dying. When my father and I looked at it, we said, 'I've got to find this guy.'"
For Noerr, piecing it all together has been "entertaining" and "fascinating." The digital detective has already solved the mystery of another camera left behind at a local Adirondack country store.
"It took me five minutes," he said. "The family in [the photos], their son was wearing a Boy Scout outfit. The troop number was visible on the Boy Scout uniform. I spoke to their council leader and she's going to forward the information."