The idea came to Joseph O. Holmes one night at the movies: “I glanced up at the projection booth window and said to my wife, ‘That would be an interesting project—to take my camera up there and see what that space looks like. Bet the equipment is exotic and the people interesting.’”
So was born The Booth, which might be considered a spinoff of Joe’s Workspace project. “I’ve done a lot of work that shows my fascination with interesting, often cluttered spaces, workbenches and desks,” Joe says.
When I spoke with Joe he had photographed some 15 projection booths in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. In almost every case he found the projectionists fun to work with. “I think they work in isolation so much of the time...[that] they enjoyed showing me around and talking about the process, and they always had war stories.” They were, however, very protective of their spaces. “Everything is exactly where they want it to be, and the equipment is often delicate, often old, sometimes ready to fall apart; they’re always working to patch it.”
He expected that the lighting in the booths would be awful, and it was. He’d first thought that he’d have to shoot by whatever meager ambient light was available, but he found that in most instances flash was not a problem as long as it wasn’t pointed at the booth’s window. He often had his son, Julian, with him as an assistant to hold the Speedlights—”Joe McNally’s famous ‘voice-activated light stand,’” Joe says—but sometimes he had to work alone, holding either his SB-600 or SB-800 Speedlight and its 24-inch softbox, fitted with a matching light-directing grid, while triggering his camera with a remote. His lenses for shooting in these small, dark, cluttered rooms were wide-angles, and mostly primes.
He was often able to take his portraits and detail shots while the movie was running, but the number one rule was stay out of the way of an on-the-job projectionist. “While the film is running they can be pretty busy, rewinding individual reels and splicing trailers,” Joe says, “but I’ve seen books in the booths, so I think they have time to read. Almost all of them told me that they don’t actually watch the movies, and I could see why: you’d have to crane to look through the little window.”
Joe learned that the projectionist’s job probably won’t exist in its current form for much longer. Digital projection is going to take over, meaning there’ll be no “film” in “film projection.” Rather, Joe says, “The image will be projected from a hard drive inside a box. It makes sense—easy to ship, easy to control off a laptop with everything programmed for the operator—just click for start and stop time. I know of several theaters where they don’t have projectionists; the manager just goes up there and knows how to operate the laptop.”
In fact, there are relatively few projectionists still working, so Joe was fortunate to get his project idea while there are still enough of them and their reels, cans, projectors, editing benches and splicing tape to provide images.
“Some theaters will always have film projectors,” Joe says, “even if they also have digital ones—places like [New York City’s] Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives that still will show a lot of old films.”
So the projectionist’s story may fade, but maybe not to black.