The boarded-up movie theaters in Michael Putnam's Silent Screens wear their faded glamour like battered hats. Putnam's photographs, taken with an 8 by 10 view camera, are starkly formalistic: the boxy, Art Deco theaters are largely shot head-on and centrally placed in the frame, making the viewer conscious of minute variations in detail and texture. The stylized neon marquees that read 'Ritz,' 'Lux,' or 'Judy' contrast with the blank peeling facades, as if we can see the dream palace that once was and the shell it has become.
Silent Screens: The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theaterby Michael Putnam
The single-screen movie theaters that punctuated small-town America's main streets and city neighborhoods since the 1920s are all but gone. The well-dressed throng of moviegoers has vanished; the facades are boarded. In Silent Screens, photographer Michael Putnam captures these once prominent cinemas in decline and transformation. His photographs of/i>… See more details below
The single-screen movie theaters that punctuated small-town America's main streets and city neighborhoods since the 1920s are all but gone. The well-dressed throng of moviegoers has vanished; the facades are boarded. In Silent Screens, photographer Michael Putnam captures these once prominent cinemas in decline and transformation. His photographs of abandoned movie houses and forlorn marquees are an elegy to this disappearing cultural icon.
In the early 1980s, Putnam began photographing closed theaters, theaters that had been converted to other uses (a church, a swimming pool), theaters on the verge of collapse, theaters being demolished, and even vacant lots where theaters once stood. The result is an archive of images, large in quantity and geographically diffuse. Here is what has become of the Odeons, Strands, and Arcadias that existed as velvet and marble outposts of Hollywood drama next to barbershops, hardware stores, and five-and-dimes.
Introduced by Robert Sklar, the starkly beautiful photographs are accompanied by original reminiscences on moviegoing by Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris, and Chester H. Liebs as well as excerpts from the works of poet John Hollander and writers Larry McMurtry and John Updike. Sklar begins by mapping the rise and fall of the local movie house, tracing the demise of small-town theaters to their role as bit players in the grand spectacle of Hollywood film distribution. "Under standard distribution practice," he writes, "a new film took from six months to a year to wend its way from picture palace to Podunk (the prints getting more and more frayed and scratched along the route). Even though the small-town theaters and their urban neighborhood counterparts made up the majority of the nation's movie houses, their significance, in terms of revenue returned to the major motion-picture companies that produced and distributed films, was paltry."
In his essay, "Old Dreams," Last Picture Show director Peter Bogdanovich recalls the closing of New York City's great movie palacesthe mammoth Roxy, the old Paramount near Times Square, the Capitol, and the Mayfairand the more innocent time in which they existed "when a quarter often bought you two features, a newsreel, a comedy short, a travelogue, a cartoon, a serial, and coming attractions."
While the images in Putnam's book can be read as a metaphor for the death of many downtowns in America, Silent Screens goes beyond mere nostalgia to tell the important story of the disappearance of the single-screen theater, illuminating the layers of cultural and economic significance that still surround it.
"These photographs and the loss of which they speak signal the passing of a way of being together." Molly Haskell
List of Theaters by State
Alabama • The Lyric, Anniston • The Martin, Huntsville
Arizona • The Duncan, Duncan
Arkansas • The Avon, West Memphis
California • The Town, Los Angeles • El Capitan, San Francisco • The State, Santa Barbara
Connecticut • The Dixwell Playhouse, New Haven • The Princess, New Haven
Florida • The Gateway, Lake City
Georgia • The Judy, Hartwell
Idaho • The Ace, Wendell
Illinois • The Pekin, Pekin
Indiana • The Rem, Remington • The Ritz, Rensselaer
Kansas • The Cameo, Kansas City
Kentucky • The Crescent, Louisville • The Ohio, Louisville
Louisiana • The Madison, Madisonville • The Sabine, Many • The Jefferson, New Orleans
Massachusetts • The Strand, Westfield Michigan • The Liberty, Benton Harbor
Mississippi • The Magee, Magee • The Star, Mendenhall • The Mono, Monticello • The Park, Pelahatchie
Missouri • The Star, Warrensburg
Nebraska • The Grand, Grand Isle
New Jersey • RKO Proctor's Palace, Newark
New Mexico • The Lux, Grants • The State, San Jon
New York • The Hollywood, Au Sable Forks • The Broadway, Buffalo • The Lovejoy, Buffalo • The Senate, Buffalo • The Jefferson, New York City • The Little Carnegie, New York City • The 72nd Street East, New York City
North Carolina • The Colonial, Chesnee • The Alva, Morganton
Oregon • The United Artists, Pendleton
Pennsylvania • The Lawndale, Philadelphia • The Rex, Philadelphia • The Spruce, Philadelphia • The York, Philadelphia • The Capitol, Williamsport
Tennessee • The Park, Memphis
Texas • The Royal, Archer City • The Strand, Chillicothe • The Gem, Claude • The Mulkey, Clarendon • The Texas, Del Rio • The Bowie, Fort Worth • The Chatmas, Hearne • The Queen, Hearne • The Palace, Henderson • The Alabama, Houston • The Almeda, Houston • The Crim, Kilgore • The Gulf, Robstown • The Clinch, Tazwell • The Winnie, Winnie
Virginia • The Earle, Big Stone Gap • The Home, Strasburg
Washington • The Pasco, Pasco
West Virginia • The Ritz, Ansted • The Alpine, Rainelle
Disused small-town and neighborhood movie theaters are to photographer Putnam what the decrepit churches and storefronts of the rural South were to Walker Evans: objects that, austerely photographed in their decline, can cause us to reflect... As you study Putnam's well-composed and well-lit photographs of abandoned theaters, a pang for the lost past inevitably afflicts you. Even more saddening is his record of conversionstheaters turned into evangelical churches, bookshops, banks, restaurants, a swimming pool.
Evocative enough to make a viewer nostalgic for places he has never been.
Michael Putnam's strikingly beautiful photographs document American movie theaters and the passing of that era in American culture. They penetrate the barrier that traditionally separates significant aesthetic achievement and historical events. Such is the contribution, historically, of great documentary photography.
Eric P. Nash
Several years after The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry hoped for 'some present-day Walker Evans' to document the abandoned theaters of his youth, and [Michael] Putnam has answered his wish.
A haunting portrait of the gradual decline of cinemas in small-town America. Putnam's book is a superb example of a documentary project's ability to arrest particular, concrete situationsand their attending emotional counterpartsand thereby illuminate the social and economic movements that engender them.
Takes us back to the wonderful world of the small hometown theaternot as they were but what they have become. A wonderful chronicle of a time when twenty-five cents was the price of an afternoon of entertainment and a soda.
These poignant and often distressing pictures of boarded-up neighborhood bijous speak volumes about main-street moviegoing in decades past, as opposed to the multiplex experience of today.
James L. Enyeart
What People are saying about this
The remnants of a bygone era are documented in Michael Putnam's Silent Screens. These poignant and often distressing pictures of boarded-up neighborhood bijous speak volumes about main-street moviegoing in decades past, as opposed to the multiplex experience of today.
Meet the Author
Michael Putnam is a freelance photographer. His photographs have appeared in such publications as U.S. Camera, Du, and America Illustrated. He also served as one of four photographers for A Guide to the National Road, also available from Johns Hopkins.
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