Sugimoto’s Movie Theaters

Brian Michael Murphy
August 25, 2015
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“Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame?” The answer: “You get a shining screen.” […] One afternoon I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture. When the movie finished two hours later, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening I developed the film, and my vision exploded before my eyes.”
-Hiroshi Sugimoto

hiroshi-sugimoto-theatre-theater-ua-playhouse--new york
“UA Playhouse, New York” (1978)
In her book, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources, Nadia Bozak argues that cinematic history and theory can and ought to be “reappraised in light of the emerging ascendancy of environmental politics.” She conceptualizes cinematic images as “resource images,” and points out that “the moving image or any other culture industry is embroiled in the business of extracting and burning earth-bound energies.” Scholars have commented upon the white light at the center of the Theaters images, but have done so in ways that dematerialize that light and erase the fact that “embedded in every moving images is a complex set of environmental relations.” Peter Hay Halpert writes that the “glow on the white screens…is an accumulated radiance.” Giuliana Bruno says that Theaters frames film as a form of “light” architecture. Bozak’s concept of the resource image poses a challenge to these readings, as she insists upon the “resource-derived, energy-driven essence of moving images,” and constantly reminds us that the light that vivifies film requires an “industrial society to sustain it.”

In my view, the Theaters images are haunting visualizations of carbon consumption, from the light on the screens in air-conditioned theaters, to the power lines and flight paths in the background of drive-ins. The light photographed in “Ohio Theater,” for instance, is a material artifact of carbon consumption and energy distribution through a vast electrical infrastructure. American Electric Power (AEP) supplied electricity for the Ohio Theater in 1980, and generated that electricity in several plants in southern Ohio, all but one of which was coal-burning.  AEP is currently the largest electrical supplier in the country and the biggest polluter among energy companies. In 2012, AEP’s power plants emitted over 141 million tons of carbon. According to a report by the Clean Air Task Force, Ohio ranked 2nd in negative health effects from power plant fine particle pollution in 2010. The report estimated that power plant pollution would cause approximately 130 deaths and over 200 heart attacks that year. One of the power plants that generated the light in the Sugimoto image, the Picway Plant, is located just ten miles south of the Ohio Theater. The Picway Plant is slated to be shut down by the end of next year–AEP would rather close the plant than install the scrubbers and other pollution-cutting technology required by the EPA.

The light in the Ohio Theater photograph may appear to be the same white light that appears in other Theaters images, but it is not. Every white rectangle is a local light, derived from different sites of resource extraction and power generation, taking part in a different context of environmental pollution and its human costs. Critical commentary on Theaters elides the material and human stakes of electrical light, and delocalizes and abstract all of the light that appears in the series, discussing it as one entity, though the locations of Theaters span the globe, from Tokyo to Columbus to New York to Auckland. John Yau writes that indoor photos in Theaters can be read as “an analogue for both the interior of a still camera and the womb. The radiant screen is the first wave of light flooding in through the camera’s open shutter, a birth canal of sorts.” Of course, it is only in movies that the birth canal appears as a tunnel with a blast of white flooding in from an opening–newborns don’t see light at the end of a tunnel as they descend.


“Ohio Theater, Ohio” (1980)
Moving images, as electric light, are resource images, and movie theaters like the Ohio Theater, are nodes that output energy from a vast network of electrical generation, distribution, and consumption. A 2011 Slate article  estimates that for a projector and an older sound system, a feature film will produce 16 pounds of CO2 emissions. The heating and cooling of the theater requires additional energy consumption. But by far, what consumes the most carbon in a screening of a movie is the transportation of spectators. Slate estimates that one car, driving just five minutes to a theater, emits 4.6 pounds of carbon, “more than 9 times as much CO2 as your home theater system would be responsible for, and more than one-third of the emissions that electricity for the cinema’s sound and light technology would create.” However, in the images, as in actual life, these emissions are not visible in the theater space, because the spatialization of electrical infrastructure creates distance between locations that generate energy and other locations that consume energy. A consequence is that a given end-point of this infrastructure–such as a movie theater with its constantly running projectors and air conditioners–seems to produce no exhaust.

In the Ohio Theater image, the architecture that surrounds the white screen purifies the light we see in the image; in other words, it abstracts it from its infrastructural contexts. The ornate walls and ceiling of The Ohio Theater hides wires and cables that carry electricity to the projector and light fixtures inside the theater, and also block out the sky. This is such a basic function of movie theater architecture that I hesitate to point it out–projected films need darkness in order to appear. But the walls of the Ohio Theater block out not only sunlight, but the incessant artificial light of downtown Columbus. If, one night, we could remove the architecture from around the Ohio Theater’s screen, we would find ourselves basking in the glow of streetlights lining the Statehouse lawn. The electrified billboards at Broad and High would toss color onto our heads like a miniature Times Square. In the opposite direction, looking past the screen, we would see the industrial sky of south side Columbus, a sky that is not black, not even very dark, but an unnatural color, a sky of exhaust rising from the Sanimax rendering plant on Frank Road, and from the vast, spark-filled yards of the Columbus Steel Castings Company, the largest steel foundry in the country, fined by the EPA in 2011 for several counts of violating the Clean Air Act.

Removing movie architecture allows us to see that, from an infrastructural viewpoint, movie theater spaces are not at all exceptional, nor magical, nor womblike, nor spaces where subjects disappear, but are one more output of great quantities of electrical energy. In the deep distance, adding the most garish colors to the semi-night sky, would be the rising plumes of the Picway Power Plant, one of the sources of electricity for the Ohio Theater. Without the theater walls, we would be able to see the very exhaust of the combustion that fueled the cinematic images on the screen. Though golden stars painted on the ceiling of the Ohio Theater are meant to mimic the night sky, such darkness no longer canopies downtown Columbus. The ceiling is an idealized rendering of a pre-industrial sky. The theater thus inverts the visual reality of fossil-fueled modernity. Inside the theater electrical light reflecting off the screen makes stars visible; outside the theater, electrical light shining out from a billion bulbs, not to mention power plant pollution, renders stars invisible, that is, unless, we’re looking at them in a photograph with a long exposure.

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