Hobby projects can come together in random ways. Starting at the beginning of 2001, I decided to take Polaroid photos of open-and-operating movie theaters, both in the St. Louis region and elsewhere. It started as a bit of a lark, something amusing to do while traveling. A handful of trips around the country this year (Portland and Eugene, Kansas City, Chicago, Tucson, Louisville) netted a few shots, as did some roadtrips to smaller towns in Missouri and Illinois. Like DeSoto, where the post-WWII "Melba" still operates, or Columbia, where the RagTag operates in a downtown storefront. Out of all the major cities, Portland proved the richest in potential sites, with neighborhood theaters a thing of the present, not only a pleasant reminder of the past. The street-level presence of these working venues is just one piece of testimony as to why Portland works as a walkable, properly scaled, yet truly urban community.
The idea to shoot these Polaroids came from a couple of different influences. Local photographer and history buff Darren Snow has been doing a similar, running project for years, snapping in 35mm. His work has a heavy bent on the single-screen theaters of small towns on the outskirts of bigger Midwestern cities; they're neat chronicles of his travels and I've enjoyed peering at them on occasion. And the publication of "Silent Screens" was clearly a motivation, too. A dense, beautiful and sometimes-depressing book of national photography by Michael Putnam, who shot, over many years, the decaying theaters of America. Sometimes they've been reborn with new uses, other times they sit in dangerous disrepair. It's a fantastic book; check it out if you can or peruse the highlights on the affiliated website.
While I can't claim any photographic prowess, these shots serve a couple of purposes for me. For one, they put an otherwise quiet camera to work. They remind me of the little, planned sidetrips and the fun days when you run across a venue by accident; all made me move around these towns a little more, in hopes of finding some locations, whether across town or across the street. And, I hope, they capture a little bit of the essence of the cities they inhabit, or sometimes even the specific neighborhood the shot of the Clinton in Portland, for example, sums up the funky area around it, a slightly denser version of our own Dogtown, with a cool record store and club just down the block. How I'd love to have that theater in South City!
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