During the past decade, 90 percent of the world’s movie theaters swapped their analog projectors for glorified computers that play files, not films. In this digital domain, the art of threading film gave way to pushing a button. But as with all technology, some stalwarts cling resolutely to the old ways.
Richard Nicholson celebrates these devotees in his series The Projectionists, a fascinating look at those who continue splicing film and lacing it through projectors long after the industry went digital. He’s explored such themes before in Last One Out, which documented London’s dwindling number of photo enlargers. “Looking closely at analog workspaces can inform us about our contemporary digital lives,” he says. “We are becoming increasingly disembodied. The objects that surround us are losing their materiality.”
His love affair with film started in childhood, watching the Super8 movies his father made. It deepened in college, when he attended the cinema at least three times each week and never hesitated to knock on a projectionist’s door if the film was out of focus. That led to a part-time job as an usher at the Odeon theater in York, where he remembers the projectionists being a somewhat antisocial lot. “It’s a strange job, working in the dark, with hours that allow little social life,” he says.
For more than a century after film’s invention in the 1890s, projectionists played an essential role. They threaded film through projectors, skillfully and seamlessly switching between projectors as one reel ended and another began. They also curated the music audiences heard as they entered the theater, dimmed the lights, and opened the curtain. “Each projectionist would have their own way of doing things,” says Richard Wallace, a researcher at the Projection Project, “meaning that each cinema would have its own identity.”
About a decade ago, analog started giving way to digital. Today nearly 9 out of every 10 movie screens worldwide is digital, something that requires little more than pressing play. “There isn’t really such a thing as a digital projectionist, at least not in most chain cinemas,” Wallace says. “With the introduction of digital projection systems there is no longer an individual present in the box to ensure that the audience is getting the best presentation of a film possible.”
Nicholson started the project in 2012 at the invitation of Projection Project director Charlotte Brundson, who’d enjoyed Last One Out. It took awhile to nail his approach because projection boxes are not an ideal setting for photography, given that they’re small and dark. Nicholson settled on using five or six flashguns strategically placed around the booth. Even then he didn’t have enough light for the 4×5 film he favors, so he opted for a 36 megapixel Nikon D800 and a 16mm lens. He carefully composed each shot to minimize distortion, photographing the projectionists going about their work. “I wanted to avoid the sort of ‘hero’ image that you might see in a magazine feature—the projectionist standing proudly beside his projector,” he says. “Film projection is a craft that is in serious decline, so I wanted to create pictures that were more contemplative.”
The industry went digital because it is cheaper, easier and more consistent than film. Frankly, most people don’t see a difference. But cinephiles say the experience isn’t as rich, and director Quentin Tarantino—who showed The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm in as many theaters as possible—calls it “TV in public.” Whatever the case, The Projectionists celebrates a dying art.
The Projectionists will be exhibited by Riflemaker at Photo London from May 18-22, 2016.