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The Quiet Glamour of Empty Theaters

A new book collects Hiroshi Sugimoto’s stunning images of drive-ins and movie palaces.

Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, photographed in 1978. (Hiroshi Sugimoto) (Hiroshi Sugimoto)

Hiroshi Sugimoto has spent nearly four decades training a large-format camera on movie screens. He leaves the aperture open as the film rolls. The result is a pearly glow that illuminates the surrounding details: pleated velvet curtains, gilded ceilings, rows and rows of seats.

Without an image frozen on the screen, the theaters look unmoored, like they could exist anywhere. But the 130 scenes collected in his new book, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Theaters (Damiani, $60), actually reveal a lot about era and place. The photographer wended his way across the U.S., from New York to Detroit and Ohio and California, and then to Europe, canvassing Art Deco-era movie palaces dripping with gilded details, saddling up to drive-ins, and recording once-grand interiors that slid into dusty disrepair.

But many of the 130 structures have experienced seismic shifts since Sugimoto committed them to film. Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, which he photographed in 1978, got a multi-million dollar tune-up in 1999, with the aim of restoring the landmark 1932 interior and shoving it forward into the 21st century. That involved shoring up Art Deco finery while retrofitting the space with high-tech accouterment: laying out hundreds of thousands of sheets of aluminum and gold leaf, freshly plush seats, and fiber optic cables to make the stage twinkle.

The Studio drive-in in Culver City, California, photographed in 1993. (Hiroshi Sugimoto)

When Sugimoto snapped his image of Culver City’s Studio drive-in, the screen dwarfed the nearby fence and swing sets, and towered above the silhouette of far-off palm trees. That was 1993. The nine-acre site sat vacant soon afterwards, and was demolished in 1998, purchased for $7.3 million to make way for 57 single-family homes and a park. One local told the Los Angeles Times that she was sad to see the structure go—even though it was ratty and worse for the wear; even though it was, maybe, kind of a boring way to spend the evening. “It was just something to do if you had two kids and no baby-sitter," she said.

She may have been talking about film as an escape, a way for parents to outsource the responsibility of entertainment and wrest a few minutes for themselves. But the statement also highlights one of the startling things about Sugimoto’s images: theaters are public spaces.

Devoid of patrons, the images draw attention to the scale of these environments built to accommodate hundreds or thousands of people, and the purpose of doing so.

Even though you can stream Netflix at home, theaters hold an allure—and people are still showing up. Though attendance has trended downwards over the last two decades, it saw a lift in 2015, when movie ticket sales increased by 4 percent over the previous year. Some 235 million people across the U.S. and Canada watched at least one movie in theaters during 2015, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

The film critic Bob Mondello offered one explanation in a 2005 NPR interview marking the centennial of America’s first movie theater: “There's still something seductive about the communal nature of sitting in a theater,” he said. “Laughter that builds bigger than it ever could in your living room, sniffles that turn to sobs when shared.” Sugimoto’s images are monuments to the theaters’ ornate designs and lofty proportions—but they’re also odes to the very personal experiences that happen inside, and the desire to not feel them alone.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Theaters, $60 at Artbook.com.

The Union City drive-in, photographed in 1993. (Hiroshi Sugimoto)
The Ohio Theater, photographed in 1980. (Hiroshi Sugimoto)

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.