Tucked in the corner of one of the Modern's upstairs galleries is a medium-sized, black-and-white photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto that can be easy to miss. But the piece has an elegant power that deserves a second look. The photograph, entitled Compton Drive-In (1994), is from Sugimoto’s popular Theaters series, which, in part, includes similar photos of drive-in theaters around the U.S. This particular photograph captures a large theater screen glowing white for an empty audience, flanked by old swings and merry-go-rounds of parks past.
For Theaters, Sugimoto exposed the film for the entire length of the movie that played on the screen. The result is ghostly, a still image of the passage of time. His technical ability is highly regarded because of this series, which he photographed with a nineteenth-century camera, before developing his gelatin-silver prints by hand. Unfortunately, modernization threatens this medium. The film is becoming archaic: Kodak may stop producing it, forcing Sugimoto to change the technique he’s been using for the past thirty years.
When I really looked at Compton Drive-In, it touched me in a way that I didn’t expect. The ethereal whiteness of the film drew my eye at first, but I soon saw that beneath it are the rows of old swing sets and three metal merry-go-rounds. On a more personal level, they reminded me of the playgrounds I used to visit in Oklahoma on trips to see my grandparents. Merry-go-rounds were always my favorite, but I rarely saw them in Texas. Fewer and fewer playgrounds seem to have them.
Drive-in theaters are also threatened to be left behind. Thinking about this piece, I looked up drive-in movie theaters here in Texas. They had their peak in the late 1950’s, with Texas at one time boasting 400 different locations – a number that has dwindled to just 16.
In his photographs, Sugimoto captures the passage of time – the lifespan of one film – as it exists in a setting that is threatened by time itself, using a medium that may soon become obsolete. When I look at this photograph, I sense the boundlessness of time, an enduring force that leaves the outdated behind in its wake.
Still, despite so many anchors to physical history, Compton Drive-In seems an ode to infinity. Although specifically the theater is antiquated, the anonymity of the screen that could be playing any film for any group of people seems to lend timelessness to the scene. Sugimoto says he looked for empty showings to shoot this series, but I like to think there were people in this theater, their movements vanishing over the long exposure time. Regardless of this photograph’s earthbound qualities – the necessity of film to capture it, the antiquity of the theater and the era it represents, it still seems to transcend time. In spirit, it surpasses the finiteness of the past, as the anonymous film plays infinitely for an invisible, ghostly audience.