A shirtless youth poses with a bottle of schnapps tucked into the waist of his jeans. A plump girl smiles coyly and licks her lips at the boys. A gas station attendant offers a cigarette to a pretty, underage girl.
Yates’ collection isn’t about beautiful portrait photography or stunning landscapes. Nor are these black and white images examples of technical prowess.
In some cases, the composition is awkward, the focus off. Taken at night using strobe flashes, the images can appear flat with lit faces and bodies with dark backgrounds and the rink’s leaning structural lines. Rather than impress, Yates’ exhibit compels with strong sense of narrative and honesty of character, however flawed, and one defined by place — in this case, a rickety, rural Florida warehouse turned roller rink and nightspot that Yates, then an undergrad at the University of South Florida, chanced upon while driving the backroads outside Tampa in 1972.
In all, Yates would spend seven months of weekends and 600 negatives photographing the Sweetheart before leaving Florida to purse a graduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The roller rink images sat essentially dormant for 40 years until 2013 when Yates entered some of his portfolio in the prestigious Photolucida Critical Mass Competition, placing within the top 50 and garnering critical acclaim from photography journals.
It doesn’t take long to realize that “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” belongs to another time and not just because of bellbottoms.
Yates images remind us of a time before missing children appeared on milk cartons, before the surgeon general’s warning, before parents were prosecuted for letting their children walk home alone.
Some contemporary viewers may find an uneasy disconnect between the rink’s innocuous name and images of underage smoking and drinking, of kissing we assume will lead to more in the parking lot and of loose, even absent, adult supervision.
But the Sweetheart is also toothy smiles, dance moves, sugary sodas and the abandon of speeding on skates. The Sweetheart intrigues precisely because it represents the borderline between innocence and its impending loss.
Ogden Curator of Photography Richard McCabe calls Yates’ work “timeless. ... There’s something universal in these images,” he said. “They transcend nostalgia.”
McCabe acknowledges that a curator’s own background can be tricky territory when it comes to selecting exhibit material, yet confesses Yates’ exhibit does holds personal significance. Not only was McCabe one of the jurors of the 2013 Photolucida competition, but as a child, McCabe came to intimately know this stretch of Florida from regular family visits.
In Yates’ work, he sees a way of life forever gone, a time when Hillsborough County felt decidedly more Southern. McCabe recalls a largely rural landscape dominated by orange groves and citrus crops, not the international juggernaut of Disney World that opened soon after Yates left Florida in 1973.
The rink itself, which dated from the Great Depression, also disappeared when it was destroyed by fire.
Chances are most Southerners will recognize something familiar in these interwoven, visual tales. We know these people; in some cases, we have been them. Removed from large cities and world events, they create dramas of their own Friday and Saturday nights. They lace up skates, enter dance competitions, pose and machinate in the parking lot, drink and fight. They rub shoulders, lips and probably more. They know each other well. Perhaps too well, but it’s an intimacy that holds our attention.