Photographs capture the lost art of film projection

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
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Projectionist at Becky's Drive-In (Walnutport, PA), 2012. Photograph by Joseph O. Holmes. On view as part of the exhibition "The Booth," at Museum of the Moving Image, October 5, 2013 - February 3, 2014. Photo by Joseph

'The Booth: The Last Days of Film Projection' photo exhibition

New York photographer Joseph O. Holmes has always been fascinated by people and the space they inhabit.

While at a movie theater with his wife two years ago, Holmes glanced back and saw a face peek through the tiny window of the projectionist booth. He was suddenly curious about who worked there and what the room might look like, especially since it was off-limits to the public.

A few days later, he called up a theater in Brooklyn and got permission to photograph its projection booth. The dark room was cluttered with film reels, an editing table with tools used to splice film together and movie memorabilia.

“I fell in love with the space. It’s sort of this grungy, cluttered place, a fascinating space,” Holmes recalled. “What I didn’t know is that it was going to be gone.”

Holmes had unknowingly been documenting what is increasingly a lost art form as movie theaters around the country convert from film to digital projectors. The staples of the movie theater booth — including the projectors and canisters of film — were being replaced by digital projectors, which resemble a metal box with a lens and is operated through a computer.

Holmes quickly began a quest to document as many theaters as he could before they went digital — resulting in a project called “The Booth,” which goes on display Friday at the Museum of the Moving Image.

The photos capture the unusual beauty of the rooms and include portraits of the unique people who work there. Holmes said he was surprised by the diversity of people he met — young and old, men and women, black and white.

“There were a couple of really old guys who had been doing it for years, and they seemed like they could have worked in a projection booth or they could have worked in a machine shop,” Holmes said. “They were old union members, and they didn’t even necessarily love movies. … They were in it because it was a skill and a craft, and they were really good at it.”

Holmes spent months visiting theaters around New York — and traveled as far as four hours away to photograph an old drive-in theater near his hometown in Pennsylvania.

There were a few theaters where Holmes was too late. The digital conversion had already begun. Curious, he went to see what the new booths looked like.

“Everything was gone,” Holmes said. “They were just a shell of their former selves.”