With the transition to digital, the days of film–real film–are fast coming to an end. Go into a movie theater nowadays and sit down in the dark, and the picture on the screen won’t be created by a light beaming through a strip of celluloid spinning through a film gate, but by pixels. As for projectionists? Locked alone in a booth, visible only as a silhouette hastily snatched through a small window beaming with light, the projectionist is a dying breed–and few are even noticing.
The death of film and the projectionist is an extinction that photographer Joseph Holmes is capturing with The Booth, a new series that aims to document the secret life of the film projection room. Shooting booths located in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Long Island, Holmes’s work captures the last days of the strange, shadowy world of film projection.
A common thread in Holmes’s photography work is an obsession with workers and their workspaces. “I sometimes think of my photography work as a ticket into places where I would not otherwise be allowed,” Holmes tells Co.Design. This is doubly true for the projection room, a sacrosanct place in the minds of most theater employees where only the anointed are allowed to tread. Yet most projection booths tend to be a seedy and idiosyncratic kind of sacristy, filled with spinning, sputtering film equipment, old posters, and scraps of film; pungent chemicals, weird graffiti, and dusty forgotten toys. They are, in short, exactly the sorts of places where you might expect to find a slightly misanthropic film lover toiling away by himself in the dark.
There are a number of reasons why film projection is going away. For one, though many purists consider film more vibrant than digital, celluloid degrades over time. Every time you run a piece of film through a projector, it looks slightly worse than it did before. Digital projection, on the other hand, looks the same the first time you show a movie as it does the millionth. In addition, there are a number of purely financial reasons why digital has taken over. Not only do film distributors save money and overhead because they no longer have to produce and shift giant cans of film all around the country (let alone maintain warehouses for film’s storage), but theater owners no longer have to keep projectionists on staff.
“From what I’ve heard, digital projectors can be operated by the same teen who serves you popcorn,” says Holmes. Exaggeration or not, it’s estimated that over 90% of theaters are now digital. “Inside the booth, it’s like night and day. Almost all of those familiar rooms with reels and editing tables and platters are gone. The projector is now a featureless box connected to a laptop.”
There are digital holdouts. Some repertory theaters like the Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of the Moving Image are keeping their film projectors out of necessity. The old and rare films they are in the business of showing may never make the migration to digital. But some theaters are risking extinction simply because they cannot afford the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to upgrade to digital projection. “My old hometown theater, the Ritz in rural Pennsylvania, is trying to become a nonprofit in order to raise money and go digital,” says Holmes. “If they can make that transition, they may survive for decades to come. If not, they’ll shut their doors.”
The ultimate casualties of the inexorable encroachment of digital projection on the cinema, though, are the projectionists, the subjects of Holmes’s series. “Obviously, projection is a dying field, and there are drastically fewer jobs for projectionists than just a couple years ago,” says Holmes. “It’s not a profession that will be making a comeback, yet there are a surprising number of young people who are projectionists. It surprised me.” They are the last generation of projectionists, too in love with the experience of real film to get out of the way before its digital destruction.