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By Contributing Writer Suzanne Révy
As a teenager during most of the 1970’s, my day-to-day existence seemed utterly boring. I regretted that I was too young to have truly experienced the tumultuous 60’s and simply could not see the 70’s as a radical or even marginally interesting era. Chalk it up to youthful arrogance because, looking back, I realize that the events of the 70’s were indeed unsettling and transformative. Kent State, Watergate, skyrocketing gas prices, stagflation and my own adolescent angst confirm the decade was an important time not only for the growth of a nation but for my own maturing. We find ourselves in another transformative era, so it is a significant moment to reflect on personal and collective histories. As such, I’ve noticed a number of photographers looking through their archives of earlier work made during this seminal time, and decided to look at three recently published books that explore America in the 70’s and early 80’s: Bill Yates’ Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, Sage Sohier’s Americans Seen and Stephen Shore’s Selected Works, 1973 – 1981.
A photography student at the University of South Florida in 1972, Bill Yates was driving around Tampa looking for things to photograph when he noticed the wooden building. He photographed the exterior of the 1930’s structure with a twin lens reflex camera, but was invited by the proprietor to come back that night when the place would be bustling with kids. Thus began a seven-month project documenting the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink. Some of the resulting pictures helped Yates land a spot at the Rhode Island School of Design, but he moved on to other work, and shelved the negatives and contacts for about forty years.
His book, Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink is a rich time capsule of bell-bottoms, bare midriffs, aviator shades, cigarettes, peppermint schnapps and teen lust. He was influenced by Winogrand and Arbus, but differs from them in the way he opted to explore a single place over the course of several months rather than their wider wanderings around cities and country. As a result, we have this perfectly captured cultural pocket that is familiar to just about anyone who came of age near a beach in the 1970’s. As I flipped through, I was reminded of a particular pinball arcade and the many bleached blonde surfer dudes of my Los Angeles youth. One portrait in particular, a square shouldered, shirtless young man with a bottle of peppermint schnapps hitched into the waistband of his jeans appears to be the person Sean Penn might have channeled in bringing us the Jeff Spicoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In an epilogue, Alexander Nemerov writes eloquently about the sheen on the teens’ skin, the light and atmosphere of the rink, and a southern quality to the work that recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song Free Bird. Personally, I hear The Who’s classic seventies anthem Baba O’Riley: “it’s only teenage wasteland.” In addition, Nemerov describes the changes that came to Florida later in the decade, and how history may have been obscured by daily life but a subliminal sense of impending change in such turbulent times may have compelled weekly visits to familiar haunts. Roller rinks and pinball arcades were those places of comfort and ease for many young people.
Feeling at ease outside in the neighborhood is an aspect of the late 70’s and early 80’s that Sage Sohier explores in her recent monograph, Americans Seen. Sohier’s pictures were made about ten years later than Yates, and unlike him, she wandered to a variety of places – like the working class neighborhoods of Boston and road trips to Pennsylvania, Florida and Utah – from 1979 to 1986. She explored “the theater of the streets” that were so rich with people of all ages hanging out in yards, parks and beaches in that pre-digital era. The book opens with one of the few interiors: a supine boy in a cluttered room, his face leaning out a window with a view to an open field. The careful viewer, however, will intuit that the field is in fact an empty urban lot, while the head of a pigeon looks at the boy. It’s a surreal scene.
We are treated to picnics in parks, teens hanging out, and the denizens of triple-decker porches. Urban backyards are organized by laundry lines delineating the extensions of homes in densely populated neighborhoods. In addition, Sohier explored rural areas, and her portrait of a young African American boy from Glen White, West Virginia is a striking image. His gesture mirrors a tree and the winding of a road toward a white church as he pulls a hand-built cart. Following that, two images from Lowell, Massachusetts with dogs, bikes, and arms akimbo begin to give the sequence a visually satisfying cadence from page to page, bringing elements from disparate places into dialog.
Like that of Yates, this work is a visual time capsule. It reminds me of all that seemed so profoundly mundane and boring at the time: the fashion, the cars, the hanging out all afternoon. With the patina time and incisive clarity of these photographers’ visions, however, these memories are scintillating, and I find myself longing to hang out wearing my aviator shades and bell-bottoms again!
Stephen Shore’s Selected Works 1973-1981 is a large tome, and unlike Yates or Sohier, the images presented in this book were selected by an international group of artists, curators, authors and cultural figures from Shore’s Uncommon Places archive. Each participant could select up to ten images, and none of them appear in the current edition of his landmark book of the same name. Indeed, most images are published in this book for the first time. Whereas Yates and Sohier present work that had been largely unseen since the 70’s, Shore’s images from that time are well known, and this book offers deeper insight into his particular vision of the American landscape.
It opens with filmmaker Wes Anderson’s selections and each choice is accompanied by a short sentence that either describes the scene, asks a question about it or offers a possible narrative. Anderson writes, “Put a nickel in the parking meter, stop by the dime-store, pick up a bottle of whiskey for a dollar and a quarter.” to accompany Shore’s “Watertown, New York, July 31, 1974”. He’s interpreted the image on so many levels: it could become a scene in a movie, it infers the economics of the time, and the photograph itself shows the type of small downtown city that has since then, for the most part, been abandoned and boarded up. In another, Anderson suggests that a man in a picture from Forth Worth, Texas must be thinking, “what is so interesting about me?” His light plaid suit, his stance and stiff smile, his surroundings of sterile office building windows and brick sidewalk juxtaposed against the gentle curve of carefully planted urban trees. What isn’t interesting?
Curator David Company explores Shore’s muted palette, particularly the color green and his exploration the relationship between nature and manufacture. Photographer An My Lê presents several portraits of women in response to Shore’s better-known portraits of his wife, Ginger. Lê writes that Shore’s “disinterest in boxing (Ginger) in as a conventional muse,” made her curious about how he photographed other women. In many ways, Paul Graham and Ed Ruscha sum up Shore’s work succinctly. Graham suggests that we revel in the quiet gifts of Shore’s perception and Ruscha notes his selects of Shore’s favored scenes were oblivious to the camera or forgot it was there. Many of Shore’s images are very matter-of-fact: he does not embellish them in beauty nor mar them in the type of cynicism seen in, say, Eggleston’s pictures. They are deeply and carefully observed, and because they are, as the decades have passed since these pictures were made, “the prism of time” as Paul Graham writes, “is illuminated.”
Near the end, photographer Taryn Simon confesses to having participated a bit late in the process, when many of her choices were already spoken for. In response, she took some three hundred and twenty images and entered them into a randomizing algorithm that selected ten images for her. She thought it made sense to pick “leftovers from someone who focuses on leftovers in the work itself,” What a poetic analogy for Shore’s work. It conjures visions of abandoned leftovers in the harvest gold fridges of our avocado green kitchens. So dated. So mundane. And so vividly nostalgic.
Suzanne Révy is a fine art photographer who creates visual diaries of her family’s life and is a Contributing Writer to What Will You Remember? Earning her BFA from the Pratt Institute and MFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Révy has worked as Photography Editor at U.S. News & World Report and Yankee Magazine and has exhibited her work at museums and galleries throughout New England and in New York. Révy is currently on the faculty at the New England School of Photography and a Board Member of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston.
Feature Image: “Untitled R26_02” (Detail) by Bill Yates (courtesy of the artist and Gallery Kayafas, Boston).
Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink
by Bill Yates
Essay by Alexander Nemerov
Published by Fall Line Press
By Sage Sohier
Published by Nazraeli Press as part of the NZ Library Set 3
Selected Works 1973-1981
Published by Aperture