The Projectionists: Photographs that reveal the most secret space of cinemas

In his series The Projectionists, London photographer Richard Nicholson has been travelling the country, gaining privileged access to a realm most cinema-goers never venture, the projection box – one of the most secret spaces of cinema.

As film has made way for digital, both the job and the workplace have changed fundamentally; Richard’s beautifully detailed images which capture this moment of transition are on display for the first time at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Gas Hall as part of the 10th Flatpack Film Festival (20-24 April).

The Projectionists is part of a wider research project at the University of Warwick, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, on the changing role of the projectionist.

Speaking of the series, Richard said: "When I first stepped into a projection box I was struck by the claustrophobic atmosphere. It was a dark, cramped space, and, as the projector whirred into motion, it became increasingly hot and noisy… As I watched the projectionist wrestle with a giant spool of film, the scene reminded me of a railwayman shovelling coal into a locomotive. Other projection rooms looked like the cockpits of 1950s sci-fi spaceships, or the engine rooms of submarines.

"Some projectionists are motivated by a love of the machinery, whilst for others it’s a love of the movies. The projectionist (like many photographers) wishes to be out of the limelight, but also at the centre of things. Modern life, with its insistent focus on the computer screen, has become increasingly disembodied, but here is a world in which labour is enacted in the realm of tangible things. As well as accurately mapping this analogue terrain, I have sought to reference the dream factory that these machine-rooms serve – key moments in the projectionist’s workflow have been staged and lit for cinematic effect."

The University of Warwick’s Projection Project also contains audio interviews from projectionists recounting their working lives. Recorded around the UK from Glasgow to Bristol, Newcastle to Cardiff, Birmingham to Leeds and London those interviewed include projectionists who are still working, have retired or been made redundant by the shift to digital projection. The recorded memories reach all the way back to the 1940s and covers the changes in the industry since then, from highly flammable nitrate prints and the increased safety of acetate film to the abrupt arrival of digital projectors and the sudden removal or many projectionists.

Richard Nicholson is a photographic artist based in Bethnal Green, London. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Warwick and an MA in Photography from the London College of Communication. His photographic practice is concerned with materiality and the passage of time. His work has been exhibited at Riflemaker (who also represent him), The Photographer’s Gallery, Four Corners, Photofusion, Somerset House and the V&A.

In 2013 he was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Postgraduate Bursary to complete his series on the demise of the photographic darkroom, Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light. Work from The Projectionists will also feature in Photo London at Riflemaker (19-22 May 2016).

Via direct submission | All images copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Main Image: Sam Bishop, The Electric, Birmingham - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

UmitMesut,UmitandSon, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

UmitMesut,UmitandSon, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Phil Fawke, Odeon Queensway, Birmingham - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Phil Fawke, Odeon Queensway, Birmingham - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Peter Howden, Rio Cinema, Dalston, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Peter Howden, Rio Cinema, Dalston, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Peter Bell and Alexa Raisbeck, NFT1, BFI Southbank, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Peter Bell and Alexa Raisbeck, NFT1, BFI Southbank, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Ewen MacLeod, Arnolfini, Bristol - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Ewen MacLeod, Arnolfini, Bristol - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Alexa Raisbeck and Peter Bell, NFT1, BFI Southbank, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Alexa Raisbeck and Peter Bell, NFT1, BFI Southbank, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Amanda Ireland, Prince Charles Cinema, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016

Amanda Ireland, Prince Charles Cinema, London - Copyright © Richard Nicholson, 2016