The golden age of theatres is now gone. With the advent of technologies in the past 40 years – such as DVD and VHS – people now are far more inclined to watch films and entertainment at home from the comfort of their sofa instead. Many of the glorious theatres from the 1970s – for both cinema and theatrical exhibition – are now completely abandoned, and have fallen beyond disrepair. The result is a strange mixture of glory and decadence, with a singular allure that writer and photographer Julia Solis has captured with her camera lens.
DMovies talked to Julia about how it all started, the meaning of these pictures to her, the most bizarre experience, her future plans and much more. Julia has been photographing abandoned theatres across the US for several years, and she has also published a book with the images. Check out the interview and below some of our favourite pictures especially selected for our readers.
DMovies – How did you start photographing abandoned cinemas? Where did the idea come from?
Julia Solis – I have spent a good part of my life exploring neglected and abandoned spaces and noticed that many larger facilities, no matter what their function – hospitals, hotels, schools, churches, jails, military barracks, amusement parks – have interesting auditoriums. They’re the soul of the institution and while some are lovingly decorated with little means, others may be a grim reflection of the disciplinary mentality underlying the design. A theatre may offer delightful escape in one place and punishing reinforcement of constraints in another. Photographing only the crumbling stages themselves and contrasting them with each other really brings out the uniqueness of each place.
DM – Please tell us about the strangest experience you’ve had?
JS – There’s an abandoned modern cineplex outside a vacant mall in Michigan [pictured at the top] – a concrete block with three theatres inside, completely ravaged by weather. The seats were mostly gone and the ceiling tiles were pulverizing on the floors, while the pits before the screens had flooded with water. A very J.G. Ballard landscape. The main cinema had turned into a surreal beach while the two smaller ones in the back were pretty swampy. We set up a tiki bar inside and had a Beach Blanket Bingo/Creature from the Black Lagoon event that featured a seance with a male Annette Funicello rappelling from the projection booth while spraying glitter from his bra before running off with the swamp creature. That was probably the best and strangest experience.
DM – Was gaining access to these cinemas difficult?
JS – My book contains about 160 theatres and access has ranged from wide open doors to difficult climbs or spending hours trying to convince someone to let me in. There were a few theatres where the access was so unsafe that I might just have a minute or two for the shot. The photo quality kind of reflects where I had a lot of time (sometimes a whole day to let it soak in) or where I had to rush. For example parking outside a wide-open theatre in East Saint Louis, we talked our way out of getting carjacked before we had even gotten inside, so as soon as the guys crossed the street I ran into the lobby, took one shot of the stage and ran back out to the car. Stupid but obsessed.
DM – What do these photographs represent to you?
JS – They’re snapshots of the drama that continues to unfold behind the decaying curtains. The strange landscapes that evolve as the deterioration progresses, the scrappers, squatters and animals changing the stage sets, the plants and rain creating backdrops for tropical fantasies, the curtains drifting like ghosts down the aisles, those are all elements in fascinating narratives that I hope to explore and evoke.
DM – Are you planning to to do more pictures in the future?
JS – Always. I still go into every abandoned theatre I can access and often the same ones. But there aren’t as many. Most of the ones I’ve documented have been renovated or demolished. I’m happy that there’s a growing preservation movement to save these glamorous old spaces. But I’ll take a ruined theatre over an active one any day.
You can see some of our favourite pictures above, and you can find out more about Julia, her images and her book by visiting her website entitled Stages of Decay – just click here in order to accede to the landing page.