The foreclosure crisis faced by the Senator Theatre last February sparked my idea to photograph former movie theaters in Baltimore. In between other assignments, starting last spring, I scouted various locations around the city. I was startled to discover that buildings I had driven by countless times, but never noticed, were former theaters, standing like forgotten ghosts. Like any collector, I exulted with each new find, and when I made a portrait that satisfied me, I felt as if I had reclaimed something lost. My editors were supportive, although they never envisioned the project would take spurts of time over about nine months.
This project was a personal creative outlet, a way to challenge myself technically while having fun. I knew that I wanted the images to have a dreamy effect, to somehow conjure up the blurry sweet memories of the past while acknowledging the present urban blight. To get this effect, thanks to our deputy director of photography, Jeff Bill, I got a Lensbaby, a cute little lens that works with my Nikon D2XS. It has a plastic bellows, like a miniature plastic drainage pipe, between the lens mount and the front lens. This enables the photographer to manipulate the plane of focus, somewhat akin to a primitive view camera. The selective focus was an effective way for me to highlight the architectural features that I felt were the essence of each building. The Lensbaby is a 50 mm fixed-focal-point lens, which also restricted the options for where I could stand to get the best viewpoint.
The other challenges were determining the right time of day, when the light would hit the buildings in the most revealing way, and getting lucky - arriving when vehicles were not parked in front, blocking the view. I tried to include people in many of the photos, because I felt it was important to show that life still swirled around these buildings, despite the decay which enveloped many of them. On several occasions, as I waited for a serendipitous moment, I observed pat-downs and drug arrests by the police. Ultimately, I produced a slideshow that can be viewed online, which features 33 theaters. It strikes more of a mournful than nostalgic note, because it records the decline of our city.
Every theater has its own personality, and like any collector, I love them all. In this photo of the Guild, the layered, almost collage-like effect of the silhouette in front of the theater, as well as the way the curves of his body echo the distinctive brick arches on the fa?ade, gives it an interesting graphic quality beyond the design of the building itself. Now that I have a personal attachment to our flickering treasures, I would love to hear any reminisces from our readers about their favorite movie palace.
To see a narrated slideshow of Baltimore's historic theaters, go to baltimoresun.com/ movietheaters