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Film projectionists are an endangered species. The vast majority (about 90%) of the world’s movie theaters have converted to digital film, leaving those who once hunkered in boxy projection rooms, threading film through reels, seeking other work. In The Projectionists, photographer Richard Nicholson documents the people who work the reels at the few movie theaters in England that remain faithful to old-school methods. The photographs, some of which are currently on view in Photo London at Somerset House, were commissioned by the Projection Project, based at the University of Warwick, a research project aimed at documenting the history of film projection in British cinemas. Several research fellows conducted extensive interviews with the projectionists Nicholson photographed.
His interest in film projection stems from his childhood. “My dad was a keen amateur photographer and filmmaker and I have fond memories of his regular Sunday evening Super8 home movie screenings,” Nicholson told Hyperallergic. The Projectionists series follows Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light, in which Nicholson documented the demise of the professional photographic darkroom.
The photographer is not a Luddite, but the bittersweet images capture the conflicts many feel about the endangerment of old technologies. “For me, both the darkroom and the projection room are symbolic of a mode of being that is disappearing from our contemporary digital lives,” he said. “They both represent a world in which work is carried out with tangible tools in an extended physical space. Digital creativity, as conducted on wafer-thin laptops, has become increasingly disembodied.” Plenty have lamented this loss of tactility in the digital age, something that’s affected music and publishing industries as much as film. “I don’t want to go back to horses and carts, or pens and ink, but I do think it’s worth meditating on what is being lost in the transition from analogue to digital,” Nicholson said.
The pictured projectionists fit a definite profile: They’re mostly gray-haired white men with glasses and scruffy beards. But there’s great diversity and personality among the projection rooms themselves, in all their messy, hoarder-ish glory. One room is stocked with jars of lollipops and gum balls and hung with a sign reading “Keep Calm and Eat Sweets,” while guitars and peacock feathers hang from the ceiling. Other rooms are more barebones, or seem taken over by machinery; one projectionist’s head appears almost swaddled in multicolored wires.
Nicholson took care to avoid nostalgia and romance in his photographs. “I wanted to avoid the kind of hero shots that you would see in a magazine feature — i.e. proud projectionist, standing beside his trusty projector, meeting the gaze of the camera,” Nicholson said. “Instead I wanted something more contemplative, more melancholic, where the projectionist is absorbed in a task, and seems to merge with the surrounding objects.” The resulting photographs are melancholy without being sentimental, candid but still carefully composed.
By focusing on the rooms and the people who run them, Nicholson also avoids turning these photographs into vintage gadget porn. He’s not a gear nerd: “Although I have a personal interest in film projection, I am not particularly interested in the historical or technical specifics of film projection,” he said.
Somewhat ironically, only a new-school technology could adequately capture these old-school projectionists. Nicholson usually shoots on large format film, but he found he could only make the pictures he wanted of these projectionists by using digital photography. “‘4”x5” film requires a lot of light for deep focus, and there simply wasn’t the space in these cramped projection boxes to position the necessary lighting,” he explains.
While they focus specifically on film projection, the photographs might as well be a swan song for the whole pastime of movie-going, increasingly usurped by Netflix and chill. In 2014, movie theater attendance was down to a 19-year low; it only barely improved last year. “To be honest, I rarely go to the cinema these days,” Nicholson said. “I’m more likely to be watching DVD box-sets in bed.”
Photo London continues at Somerset House (Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA) through May 22.