Until 21 January, Galerie Fontana is presenting the exhibition 'Theaters', showing the photo series of the same name by artist duo Marchand & Meffre. It portrays cinemas in a dilapidated state or as you rarely saw them before: converted into a bus depot, gym, warehouse, drug store, church, bingo hall, disco or gymnasium.
Particularly in the United States, these cinemas symbolise a bygone era, as a monument to the American culture and values of the 20th century. Partly because, like the famous shopping malls, there are so many of them, sometimes due to certain tax benefits. They resemble so many other buildings that are slowly disappearing from our streets: from video stores and travel agencies to tanning studios. At the same time, cinemas capture our imagination much more, with their inherent promise of escapism, glamour and adventure.
Marchand & Meffre, State Theater, West Orange, NJ, 2009, Galerie Fontana
Many of the cinemas that Marchand & Meffre captured were built in the 1910s and 1920s, luxury experiences that epitomize the golden age of cinema. Events like the 1930s stock market crash, a war, suburbanisation, social changes and the advent of television caused a decline in cinema attendance, which picked up a bit in the late 1970s and 1980s, partly due to the arrival of the blockbuster, with films such as Jaws. Right now, streaming services (the golden age of television) in combination with a smaller disposable income are once again causing a significant drop in visitors, especially for commercial cinemas. Many of them have been demolished or given a new use in recent decades. Marchand & Meffre are fascinated by the concept of urban ruins and traveled the world with a large format 4×5 camera to capture the remains of the most extraordinary cinemas: from New York and Philadelphia to Tangier and Buenos Aires.
Marchand & Meffre, Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia, USA, 2012, Galerie Fontana
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre were born in 1981 and 1987 in the suburbs of Paris. In 2002, they decided to join forces. Both photographers share an interest in contemporary ruins and in 2005, they started a project in which they immortalise the decay of Detroit, the American city that turned into a ghost town. This series was shown in Galerie Fontana in 2012.
The photographers are particularly interested in the human story behind these ruins. What do they say about important changes in our (capitalist) society and, less explicitly, about our ways of thinking and what we deem important? At the same time, their work is also about metamorphosis and our ability to adapt to new times in a rapidly changing world. In that sense, they act as a mirror. Still, the series is less about nostalgia than about the inevitable passage of time. It would also be unfair to look at these images with an overly wistful or rosy look: after all, there is a reason why these cinemas are in this state of disrepair or renovation, there is simply not enough demand for them. In addition, the photographers also show a certain beauty in the midst of the destruction and transformation.
Marchand & Meffre: “During our visits to ruins, we always try to focus on remarkable buildings, whose architecture embody the psychology of an age and a system, and we observe the metamorphosis of the process of decay.”
Marchand & Meffre, Meserole Theatre, Brooklyn, NY, 2016, Galerie Fontana
For the series 'Gunkanjima', the photographers captured the island of Hashima, about fifteen kilometers from Nagasaki. That island was once an important location for coal mining, which led to a huge influx of new residents. After the mine closed in 1974, these people left the island again, so that the most densely populated part of Japan suddenly became a kind of ghost island that symbolises the way many people see nature: as a resource that needs to be exhausted.
On the one hand, the 'Theaters' series by Marchand & Meffre is an ode to the beauty and history of pre-war film palaces. The photographers capture the architectural diversity of these cinemas, which were built in a multitude of styles: from Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Bauhaus to Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Gothic. On the other hand, they also record the bizarre reallocations. The contrast between the gymnasium and the original details of the cinema architecture is so immense that it also reminds you a bit of the playful Instagram account Great art in ugly rooms. As a viewer you hardly know what hurts the most: a bright yellow gymnasium in a beautiful cinema or the peeling paint, the rubble and destroyed ceilings in the empty buildings. The latter images also have an almost apocalyptic edge: is this what the world would look like in a few decades if humanity were to die out? The images from the series were published in the photo book Movie Theaters in early 2022.
Marchand & Meffre, Palace Theater, Gary, IN, 2009, Galerie Fontana
The works of Marchand & Meffre have been included in the collections of The Ford Foundation, Fondation Carmignac, the Deutsches Filminstitut, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Fondation Hermès, Maison Européenne de la Photographie and the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, among others. Their work has been exhibited extensively and appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, The Guardian, The British Journal of Photography and TIME Magazine.