Doing some online research recently, I tripped over a discussion at a photography board that began with a mention of some of my drive-in theater pictures from my website. The discussion took place more than four years ago and I was not aware of it. A fairly long thread developed, which consisted mostly of people recounting fond memories of DI theaters. That’s what usually happens when people see some of these pictures. One individual then went on at some slightly pedantic length about the socio-economic background of the drive-in theater industry, ending with a critique that my pictures were too emotional: histrionically nostalgic.
The Winner, Winner, South Dakota, 2002
That’s quite a bit of projection, there. I literally can’t be nostalgic about the DI because it wasn’t part of my past. I’m the right age, but grew up in the wrong place (they were never, even in the 1950s, thick on the ground twenty miles west of Manhattan) plus, my family almost never went to movies anyway. My experience began when I became interested in them as a subject for documentary photography, starting about 15 years ago. My connection to them is entirely in that extended present tense. I suppose I could manage to come up with some metaphorical nostalgia based on all that I’ve learned about the subject, but it’s not a conscious goal.
Documentary photography for me is observational, but never objective, neutral, or unbiased. No art form is objective. I think good documentary photographs result when the photographer makes prints (including now online, eBook, iPad, etc. presentations) that work as a bridge, that facilitate a perceptive viewer to move through the print to an emotional connection with the subject. Good photographs build that bridge, but the actual emotion comes from the viewer, and the viewer’s relation to the subject matter.
The Jesup, Jesup, Georgia, 2012
Let’s say someone looking at these pictures, “grew up at the drive-in,” (a phrase I hear a lot) or simply has fond memories of childhood family outings, or teenage dating with an unaccustomed degree of privacy. If there’s an emotional reaction, the emotion may well be nostalgic. She might decide that I’m intentionally making sentimental or nostalgic pictures.
I can imagine another possible viewer, let’s say a Fundamentalist preacher, who was raised believing that the drive-in theater was a terrible blot on society, an immoral “passion pit,” leading youth so astray that the saloon and the pool hall look like garden parties in comparison. If he looks closely at the pictures, he might establish an emotional connection, but it may be one of revulsion and opprobrium. He might accuse me of immorally promoting these dens of iniquity with my pictures.
The Starlite, Christianburg, Virginia, 2003
In a related vein, I’ve never referred to this project as being about “Abandoned Drive-in Theaters,” (or Dead, or Derelict, or Dark, etc). Yet, people almost always use one of those terms to refer to it. In fact, at least 75% of the theaters shown in my older web gallery presentation, and more like 90% of the 107 theaters shot in 2012, are fully operational, or at least were at the time I shot them. Seems like projection again, overlaying the viewer’s personal experience on the pictures. The things is, 90% of the theaters scattered across the country at the heyday, around 1960, are gone. Hundreds are still operating, but, out of sight, out of mind. Despite the fact that quite a few pictures in the project show evening activities, and that a lot of the theaters shown in their daytime landscape settings are gleaming white and in perfect repair, a lot of viewers just skip over those—maybe, "they don’t fit in”—and say something like, “I used to love the drive-in, too bad they’re all gone.”
The Boulevard, Kansas City, Kansas, 2012
As I design the book layout, a couple things I’m planning are that each plate will be identified with the name and location of the theater, along with the date the picture was shot. Also, endnotes will, wherever possible give brief, historical stats on each theater, including whether it’s still operational at the time of publication.