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The Waning Art Of The Projectionist

Posted: November 10, 2012

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It's the weekend, and for many that means movies. Ever wonder who's working that little room up there in the theater? Photographer Joseph O. Holmes has followed the flickering light to find out.

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.

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.

Projectionist Ed Ko at New York City's Film Forum. Ed has been projecting at Film Forum longer than any other projectionist there.

Projectionist Ed Ko at New York City's Film Forum. Ed has been projecting at Film Forum longer than any other projectionist there.

Projector in the booth at Jackson Heights Cinema in Queens, N.Y., a former Bollywood theater that now shows many films subtitled in Spanish.

Projector in the booth at Jackson Heights Cinema in Queens, N.Y., a former Bollywood theater that now shows many films subtitled in Spanish.

Projectionist and repairman Bryan Diego at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, which is scheduled to close later this year because the building will be demolished.

Projectionist and repairman Bryan Diego at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, which is scheduled to close later this year because the building will be demolished.

Projectionist Joe Lamboy at the Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y.

Projectionist Joe Lamboy at the Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y.

Projectionist Michael Lefanto at Film Forum. Michael works in many New York City booths, including at the Museum of Modern Art.

Projectionist Michael Lefanto at Film Forum. Michael works in many New York City booths, including at the Museum of Modern Art.

Projectionist Nadeem Malik at the Bombay Theater, Flushing, N.Y.

Projectionist Nadeem Malik at the Bombay Theater, Flushing, N.Y.

Manager Tushar Kshatriya in the booth of the Bombay Theater.

Manager Tushar Kshatriya in the booth of the Bombay Theater.

Projectionist Eva von Schweinitz at Film Forum.

Projectionist Eva von Schweinitz at Film Forum.

Projectionist Chris Saxe at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn.

Projectionist Chris Saxe at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn.

Projectionist Jacob Weiner at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Projectionist Jacob Weiner at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Projectionist Noel McCarthy at the Chelsea Clearview theater in New York.

Projectionist Noel McCarthy at the Chelsea Clearview theater in New York.

Editing table at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn. The table is currently stacked with trailers, or, as they're now known, previews.

Editing table at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn. The table is currently stacked with trailers, or, as they're now known, previews.

Projectionist Tim King at Cinema Arts Center, Huntington, N.Y.

Projectionist Tim King at Cinema Arts Center, Huntington, N.Y.

Projectionist Tom Doyle at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn.

Projectionist Tom Doyle at the Avon Theater, Stamford, Conn.

Projectionist Ed Ko at New York City's Film Forum. Ed has been projecting at Film Forum longer than any other projectionist there.

Projectionist Ed Ko at New York City's Film Forum. Ed has been projecting at Film Forum longer than any other projectionist there.

The booth at the Ritz Theater in Muncy, Pa.

The booth at the Ritz Theater in Muncy, Pa. "I went to Saturday matinees at the Ritz from the time I was 6 or 7 years old," writes Holmes. "The Ritz has shown movies almost continuously since the 1920s but may not last much longer, since the cost of converting to digital is prohibitive on the theater's limited income."

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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