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The booth at the Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. The booth is its own little screening room; note the digital projector mounted in the ceiling. (Joseph O. Holmes )

The Waning Art Of The Projectionist

by Claire O'Neill
Nov 10, 2012

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Claire O'Neill

Do you ever look up at the tiny window at the back of the movie theater and wonder who's up there? Photographer Joseph O. Holmes has followed the flickering light to find out.

"I've always had this fascination with private work spaces," he says on the phone.

For years Holmes has photographed the places where people are most productive — be it a cluttered desk with an inspirational corkboard, or a tidy cube with a bobblehead and Post-its. His most recent project gets a bit more specific, focusing strictly on the work spaces of the people who make movies happen.

This is one of many stories about machines replacing humans, as Holmes explains: "I'm working against the clock with the whole series because a lot of these theaters are converting to digital projection — which does away with a lot of the interesting stuff in a projection room."

Holmes started the series in and around New York City and has slowly branched out to surrounding areas. Many of the traditional theaters he has visited are family-operated businesses. Some of the projectionists are cinephiles, says Holmes; a few of them are younger. But for the most part, he explains, it's a job.

"All the projectionists who are still working ... are finding less and less work," he says on the phone. "The only real reaction is that they were all worried about whether they'd find enough work."

I can't help but think of pesky little Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso, learning the ropes from Alfredo, the veteran projectionist — and I can't help but get nostalgic. Salvatore grows up in that little room under Alfredo's wing, and eventually becomes a projectionist himself. In the end, though, Alfredo tells Salvatore to leave town to chase his dreams, and to never look back with nostalgia.

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