Michael Putnam's movie theater project evolved out of a photographic crisscrossing of the United States beginning in the early 1970s, when the downtown's way of life was in the process of disappearing. Perhaps the most important motivating theme in Putnam's photographic work is loss and a need to record the residue, the visual remains of things he took for granted would always be there. He is compelled by change to look at inferences, absences, implications of a time or place he feels inside himself, regardless of whether he has stood there before or not.
Putnam was born and brought up in New York City. His experience of small towns throughout the U.S. began while he was working as the editor and photographer of PepsiCo's in-house magazine in 1970-71, going on short jaunts to photograph local bottlers and their plants, environments, and visibility in their towns. He then began to photograph at local, county, and state fairs and at parades and holiday events in small towns that had their own particular traditions. He was drawn increasingly away from his own New York environment by something that was exotic to him in the small towns and back roads of America.
For Putnam the itinerant life is certainly part of the lure. But the visual intensity of the images comes from the subject itself, the ruins of an era not his own, in a place not his own. For over two decades Putnam traveled and photographed, and the subject began to define itself more and more particularly, as the towns' centers continued to shift away from the increasingly declining Main Streets that had defined them.
The first sight of the town through the windshield as he approached it, the view of another American town, became a moment he knew so well and felt so keenly the he began to search for a way of representing that moment-the familiarity, the feeling that he was coming in more than partway through a story he already knew. At one time there was a movie theater in almost every town in America. The Strand, the Bijou, the Gem, the Ritz, the Realto. He had seen these theaters as part of the personality of the street-often the only commercial street in the town-and he had often photographed that street to its vanishing point.
The small town movie-theater was closed by the time Putnam started singling it out. Its dilapidation, marks and scars, graffiti, broken glass, rusted marquee, empty 'Coming Attraction' frame, dank-smelling ticket booth, and its blank dumbness in the face of the street were part of a romance Putnam saw and felt was the American town itself.
For eight years he followed all leads. He found lists, marked maps, sent out queries, and drove thoUnited Statesnds of miles to photograph a subject that was disappearing, to capture this long moment of transition between one kind of town and another newer, indoor commercial gathering place. The key years were 1985-89. He photographed in black and white, then color, used cameras from 35mm to 8 x 10, always trying to see the subject in a different way. Putnam's lifelong obsessive noticing of that which is on the verge of being lost came to an all-consuming pursuit of the theater as representative of the small town way of life. In the later years of the project the timing changed; as the decline accelerated, he began to get there at the last minute. And then he was getting there too late.
Putnam traveled an estimated 50,000 miles of American during the eight major years of the project, visited some 2,600 towns and cities, and photographed at least 1,200 theaters. Inevitably, he regrets the fact that he did not get more, that he did not get them all, that he did not do them justice. Putnam's ongoing theme is transition, that moment that stands between loss and the contemporary state. It is not enough to mourn the loss. We are enjoined, also, to honor these theaters as part of the rich texture of our present life.
Michael Putnam lives in New York City and participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in April 1998.
Melody Lawrence is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in New York City.