Drive-In Dreams

The ghosts of the drive-in live in the photographs of Sandra C. Davis, on view at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville.

By: Matt Smith
   Drive-in movie theaters are disappearing from the American landscape. A scant few hang on, but the majority rest silently along the dusty old business routes that were bypassed decades ago by sprawling superhighways.
   These relics of the country’s post-World War II boom are overgrown by weeds and peeling billboards, devoid of life — save the occasional visit by an amateur graffiti artist or a Saturday flea market. Yet the high-pitched monster-movie screams still seem to linger in the air; and steam from backseat teen-age fumbling clouds the windows of non-existent cars.
   The ghosts of the drive-in live in the photographs of Sandra C. Davis. In "9W Drive-In, Middlehope, NY," the crumbling screen in the background looks like a sharp-toothed creature from one of those monster movies. The snack bar in the foreground evokes images of a Cold War-era bomb shelter.
   The 41-year-old Burlington resident captured the image last summer in Upstate New York. Before heading north for a long weekend visit with a friend in Auburn (between Ithaca and Syracuse), Ms. Davis made plans to alter her route to take a few photographs.
   "I went on the Internet and there are several Web sites that are specific to drive-in movie theaters," she says. "I printed out a list of all of them in New York State, got out my maps and just plotted, ‘Hey, if we drive on this road we can see this one, and if we drive over here, I can see this one."
   Two drive-ins Ms. Davis shot on the trip — the "9W" in Middlehope and one in Auburn — are included in Vanishing Points, a two-person exhibit with painter Marc Reed at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville through May 5. The show features images from Ms. Davis’ ongoing American Roadside portfolio, a 20-year project to photograph drive-ins, Mom-and-Pop motels and cabin courts, and roadside amusements.
   Ms. Davis shoots mostly with black-and-white infrared film, and uses older, slower developing processes such as palladium and cyanotype. This combination gives her photographs a textured, dreamlike feel. She often adds careful hand coloring to the images to compound the eerie effect.
   An Artists’ Gallery member for four years, Ms. Davis works as a free-lance graphic designer and as an instructor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She offers a straightforward, teacher’s explanation of non-silver photography:
   "You start with a sheet of printmaking paper and coat it with a photo-sensitive solution," Ms. Davis says, "whether it’s cyanotype or palladium, and when it’s dry, you put a negative on top of it and expose it to light. You take the negative off and when you go to develop the image, you actually just wash it. The areas that were struck by light through the negative remain on the paper and the rest washes away."
   Ms. Davis developed an interest in non-silver processes at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia in the early ’80s. She fell in love with the fading architecture of the 1950s and ’60s around the same time, spending two years shooting the defunct Willow Grove Amusement Park in Montgomery County, Pa.
   "I look back at some of my negatives and I still want to print some of them now," she says, "but I look at them and I go, ‘Ugh. If I had the vision I have now, how different they would look. Just think of what I could do now if I knew what I know now.’"
   "Natalie Drive-In" was taken on Ms. Davis’ trip back in time to the coal-mining towns of west-central Pennsylvania. The arrow on the empty sign seems to point to an unseen sadness.
   "There’s an appearance of an era gone by," she says. "They built amusements specifically for the people working in the mines. Of course, now that the mines are closed, it’s all abandoned. There’s no reason for someone to come in and build a mall because nobody’s working in the mines, so no one’s going to spend money at a mall."
   Her photographs abound with questions about a fast-changing society. Ms. Davis thinks most of the changes aren’t for the better, but also feels the guilty pangs of progress.
   "Children growing up now, like my two nieces in particular, are going to miss some things that we enjoyed as children," she says. "Maybe the country was more naive then, less paranoid.
   "But when I go on vacation, I want to stay in some of these cottage courts and Mom-and-Pop motels, but I’m also nervous about what kind of condition they’re going to be in — whether they’re sleazy or clean. I feel like if I don’t stay in one of them, I’m helping to create their demise by not patronizing them."
Vanishing Points, the works of Sandra C. Davis and Marc Reed, runs at the Artists’ Gallery, 32 Coryell St., Lambertville, through May 5. Opening reception: April 6, 6-9 p.m. Gallery hours: Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. For information, call (609) 397-4588. On the Web: