The Great American Drive-In Theater Road Trip

By Carl Weese Back to

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In October of 2001 I was working on a project in rural Pennsylvania when I encountered a drive-in theater that was closed, but in good condition. I’d photographed an abandoned drive-in several years before and the picture proved one of the most popular in my portfolio of twenty 8×10 platinum/ palladium prints. While I made 8×10 pictures of the new theater a plan began to form. Every one of these iconic American structures is unique. Although there are no cookie-cutter stock designs, the main elements of a giant white rectangle and other simple buildings have appeared in every corner of the country, in every element of the North American regional landscape. The project idea was to photograph surviving, or at least standing, theaters in every region of the country, in a full range of landscape settings.

Over the next decade I made road trips to work at drive-in theaters in 27 states. But a really big trip was needed to reach the far southeast, the west through Oklahoma, Texas, the southwest, the entire west coast, then back through the Colorado Rockies. I kept putting this off because of the expense. Last year, I learned that the theaters were under a grave threat. Film distribution companies planned to switch entirely to digital by sometime in 2013, but the cost of digital projectors is $70,000 to $100,000. Drive-ins are often seasonal, part time secondary businesses. Many might not be able to make the transition. I had to finish shooting the project right away.

To help with expenses, I decided to do a Kickstarter (KS) crowdsourcing campaign, which proved successful (www.kickstarter.com/projects/1530433688/the-american-drive-in-movie-theater). With this limited experience I have two pieces of advice about using Kickstarter. First, you need a compelling project. Your video and text description should be all about the project and why it is important. Pitches that are “all about me” tend to fail. Second, KS just provides a platform, it doesn’t bring in eyeballs. You’ve got to find ways to do that yourself. For me, I write for the prominent photo enthusiast blog The Online Photographer (TOP), and they featured my project as soon as it was announced. We met the bare bones funding goal in twenty hours flat.

At the end of thirty days, at 196% of initial funding goal, stats showed that nearly half my sponsors had clicked in from TOP. You’ve got to find similar mechanisms to support a successful campaign.

Most of my research into the theaters used Internet sources. Logistics, compared to years past, were helped by modern conveniences. My GPS unit not only found best routes from one theater to the next, but also often had them listed in its Points of Interest database so I didn’t even need to punch in an address. Many theaters now have their own websites, which was a great help to finding whether they were still operational. Finally, even cheap hotels today almost always have WiFi so I could continue my research each evening, as well as post pictures and project reports to my blog. There was a six-week western leg of the trip in May and June, then a two-week circuit to Florida from my Connecticut base, later in October. The project covered 17,000 miles during 52 days on the road. I exposed several hundred sheets of 8×10 and 7×17 inch sheet film, and about 17,000 digital captures.

On my earlier trips I worked exclusively in large (and ultra-large) format (LF) black and white. I now wish I’d also done more extensive documentation with 35mm film back then. This time I had to make difficult decisions about which theaters and settings were sufficiently distinctive and exemplary of regional landscape settings to justify the cost and logistical burden of large format film. However, all of the theaters got extensive documentation with digital capture, including multiple angles, small details, and people and activities. A few times, I concentrated on digital capture because color was such an important element of the theater.

As in the past, I used my 8×10 Deardorff camera with 165, 240 and 360mm lenses, and 7×17 Korona with a 305mm lens, and a big A-100 Ries tripod. Since my black and white negatives all get the same development in PMK pyro, I used a large Harrison changing tent to change the film in the holders every few days, exposed sheets going into old film boxes, one for each size. I kept an older digital camera with the view cameras— after each setup I’d make snapshots of the scene, including the camera. These time-stamped files made it easy to track the LF negatives once they were developed. Another important item was a tiny Olympus digital voice recorder that I used to record wonderful interviews with the theater owners I was able to contact.

Managing the digital files was rather more complicated. Over the past several years I’ve moved from DSLR cameras to the micro four thirds format (MFT). I added a second Lumix G3 camera for backup, and a Lumix G 7-14 varifocal, largely because it had the best optical quality of any short lens for MFTs. It didn’t disappoint. I used it for a great majority of the theater digital captures. Most were made on a massive 35-year-old Gitzo tripod. When you’re trying to make captures at base ISO and optimum aperture in late afternoon light in the Kansas wind, a very small camera needs to be attached to a very heavy tripod.

To handle all the capture files I used a simple method that seemed to work well. I bought two pocket sized 500 GB external hard drives, named one Captures and the other Capture Bak. At the end of each day, I’d create a new folder named for the date, 6/11, 6/12, etc. After downloading the files from both camera cards to that

folder, in Bridge (Adobe Photoshop browser module) I’d sort them on the time stamp, then Batch Rename in the format: yymmdd_0001. Then I used a backup program to send the new files to the second external drive so it always mirrored the first. Because each file name begins with the date, it’s easy to correlate the pictures to my written notes on the subjects. In addition, any subsidiary files I make such as jpg files for the web or psd files for printing, retain the date for tracking and also automatically sort themselves into chronological order.

Before leaving, I had a security alarm system installed in my car. However, I was traveling during a record heat wave and drought—I encountered temperatures of 113°F at four different locations. Since the sun didn’t set until nearly nine p.m., I had to haul all of the equipment cases and luggage, everything except the tripods, out of the secure but baking car, then drag them up to an unsecured but air-conditioned room, then back out in the morning.

The security was still a good idea for such a large project. I figured that if all I did was drive from one theater to the next, I’d lose freshness of approach. So I stopped as often as possible to do an hour or so of ‘photo walkabout’ with the digital cameras any time I came to an interesting town. I was much more comfortable walking around a strange place knowing the equipment and film were in a car with a good alarm system. It made a nice break in the travel and I got a lot of pictures I really like.

A couple of high points of the trip had different origins. From my first serious research I knew about The Skyline in the desert hills at Barstow, CA. I’d even seen a decent snapshot of it that influenced my idea of getting photographs of the theaters in all the highly distinctive regional landscapes of the US.

On June 11th I was delighted to reach the theater. I’d been in touch with the owner by email and cell phone, and a helper was there to unlock the gate for me. I found a location in the hills east of the theater and returned at sunrise. The 7×17-inch view I had visualized a dozen years earlier was right there, in perfect desert morning light.

I really wanted a theater nestled into the mountains. Somewhere. Nothing quite fit the bill along the west coast, or back through Idaho and Utah. Then finally I reached Buena Vista, CO. The Comanche Theater sits on a flat plateau at 8,000 feet elevation, and the Collegiate Range (the peaks are named for Ivy League schools) rises high, just to the north. Once again, the light next morning after sunrise was all I could hope for, with rising haze and huge mountain clouds.

Developing the film took a while. Editing and coming to terms with the vast number of captures took much longer. Now, it’s on to drafting a book design!


About the Author

Carl Weese
CWeese
Carl Weese grew up in New Jersey, and began work as a freelance photographer in 1972 in the Philadelphia area, and moved to western Connecticut in 1975. Parallel to his commercial career in photo-illustration for editorial and commercial clients, Weese has produced personal photographic projects on subjects such as life with a traveling carnival, the effect of an underground coal fire on a small Pennsylvania town, landscapes of the eastern United States and the vernacular architecture of country churches. He is co-author of the 1998 book The New Platinum Print, an instruction manual on modern approaches to the classic platinum process of photographic printing. You can see one picture from each of the 107 theaters at carlweese.com and read his blog at: workingpictures.blogspot.com.