“I believe a lot of photography is luck,” says Bill Yates. “But that depends on you putting yourself in a place where something is happening.”
That’s just what he did back in September 1972, when he spotted the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink. Driving around the rural Six Mile Creek in Hillsborough County, Tampa, in Florida, with a brand-new medium format camera, he saw the 1930s, wooden building out of the corner of his eye and, turning back for a better look, happened to meet the owner.
“I never have a problem starting up a conversation so we started talking,” says Yates. “He took a liking to me and invited me to look inside. As soon as I walked in I said ‘Oh boy! This could be neat’.
“I squeezed off a few frames of the interior and asked if I could come back, and he said ‘Sure, the place is going to be jumping’. When I returned, I could barely get in the car park.”
What he’d stumbled on was the Studio 54 of its community, a hotspot that attracted local school kids and youths just a little bit younger than himself. Those first trips weren’t easy, the kids wondering “what in the hell” a bearded 26 year old was doing wandering around with a camera and huge flash, but Yates shoot eight rolls of film that weekend alone.
Printing up the contact sheets, he decided to take them back to the rink to show the skaters; from then on “I was their new best friend”. Yates went every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for the next seven months, amassing an archive of over 900 images.
“After putting the proof sheets up, every encounter became easier, and then after a while I became like the wallpaper,” he says. “Every weekend, I would show them what I’d shot the week before, and they got so they were expecting it. They were disappointed if they weren’t in it.
“Kids at that time related to photographs by looking in magazines or going to the drugstore and having formal Christmas portraits taken,” he adds. “People did not have cameras, so photographs weren’t a dime a dozen, and they definitely didn’t show them in their own environment getting into it.”
His first shots were on a new (to him) camera, in lighting that was patchy at best, but Yates soon worked out the technical parameters – using “a commercial flash that threw out a lot of light”, he knew everything within about 6ft-12ft would be in focus. The optimal range was within about 8ft-12ft, so he shot nearly everything there; if he ran out of medium format film, he’d pick up his Leica and keep going.
Yates had got into photography as a boy, shooting on a Box Brownie he was given when he was 10, but he had a stint in the Navy before starting a BA in Art and Photography at the University of South Florida, and was in his final year when he shot the Sweetheart Skating Rink. The project became his portfolio for graduate school and, having got into the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskin, it somehow got put to one side.
“At the time it was sort of normal to be like ‘Ok lets see what else you can do!’” he says. “I packed the portfolio away and started doing other types of photography, then something called life happened. You move on and travel and get married, stuff gets packed in back. I didn’t put it away to forget about it, but these things happen.”
And there the archive lay for 40 years. Yates became director of the University Gallery at New Mexico State University and enjoyed a stint as an aerial photographer, but he always kept on shooting for himself and finally, in 2012, decided to “get his photographic house in order”. With boxes and boxes of negatives and contact sheets to go through – to this day, he’s only looked through a third of his archive – he “picked up the first box on the pile” and found the Sweetheart shots.
Of the 900 images he shot, about 700 were in focus and at a useable exposure; when he started printing, he was “amazed” by what he saw. “They were pretty strong,” he says modestly. “The negatives have held up beautifully.”
He decided to enter some of the shots into the Photolucida’s Critical Mass competition, not to win an award – he says he’s never been competitive – but to get it into the photography community. Four or five months later he got a message saying he was in the top 200, and the night before the top 50 was announced, he got emails from several of the judges saying they wanted to talk.
The next day he found out he was in the top 50 – the highest rung in the competition – and since then the project has gone on to be exhibited at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and published by Fall Line Press, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. “When I saw the book I came to tears,” says Yates. “It’s really fine design and exceptional quality.”
He’s now 70 but, despite the long wait, says he’s glad the book came out now. “I think everything in life about timing, and this was the right timing for me personally, and the right time for photography community to see this and embrace it,” he says. “It’s not greatest thing in the world but it’s interesting slice of time.
“Back then the interior of Florida was a sleepy, unsophisticated place,” he adds. “Disney World had only just opened [Disney World Resort in Florida opened in 1971], and I caught something that was about to disappear. Now the orange groves have turned into plastic motels and hotels. Back then nobody had cellphones or cameras, there was no cable TV. They were just into themselves and each other.”
For more information about Bill Yates and his Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink project visit his website at www.sweetheartrollerskatingrink.com. The book costs $65 and can be ordered direct from Fall Line Press.