When Nancy McCrary, SXSE’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, telephoned me one morning about a photographer whose work she said I had to see now, I knew it would be worth it. Bill Yates arrived at my house that afternoon, with a large red portfolio, a box of prints, and a 10” rolled up proof sheet of 160 images. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
We talked for a while, and then Bill told me about a drive he took back in 1972. He had happened upon Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink outside of Tampa, Florida where he would spend weekends over the next seven months photographing life. From the minute I opened the portfolio I was stunned. The work and the story were complete, the black and white prints gorgeous, and the images flowed with a visceral energy that made me hear the roll of the skates on the hardwood floor, feel the pulse of the music, smell the thick cigarette smoke, and taste the Schnapps.
The clothes, the hair, and the raging hormones – all contributing to create this compelling document of a more innocent time – made this a fashion story, a coming of age story, and a story of youthful rebellion. Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink was the Studio 54 of its time and place – these kids were excited and there to have fun. After quietly studying each image, I said to Bill, “you’ve got a book here”. And seven months later I was honored when he asked me to be the photo editor.
Initially, Bill gave me small prints of his 200 selects, the images he felt were the best of the work. In true editor fashion, though, I wanted to look at everything he had shot…just in case there was a hidden jewel, or photos that connected in some compelling way. I was hoping to find the images that only make sense when looking at the project as a whole.
With prints spread across my dining room table, a book of contact sheets, and over 600 images on my computer, the enormity of the project began to sink in. Many mornings I’d walk downstairs, get a cup of coffee, stare at the photographs, move a few around, and then walk away. The problem of narrowing it down was proving to be difficult. Plus the subjects were beginning to feel real to me…the tough boys, the couples, the girls with a hairbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other…each was a story and they all needed to be told. So the hard-core editing began. 600 images became 500, 300 became 100, and we had our first edit.
Sharing that edit with Bill was nerve wracking. While I was confident about my choices: the sequencing, opening images, flow, pairings and groupings, and closing images, these images were his. He was there. He knew these kids. It was crucial for him to feel that it honored the place and the people he’d photographed.
What was also important to me, and our book designer Laurie Shock, was conveying a sense of motion throughout the book . Giving the images space to move felt true to the work, to our first-person experience of roller-skating as kids. We didn’t want a right page image following a right page image throughout the book. Instead we wanted each image to inhabit the space it needed to tell it’s story, whether that be inset or full bleed, occupying one page or extending across 2 pages, running alone or grouped with other photographs. Each page needed to represent visual decisions made uniquely specific to that image.
And they did.
As we walked through the mocked up “book” on a large monitor Laurie and I talked Bill through the edit. When we came to the last page we turned and saw Bill, teary-eyed and with a big grin on his face. He’d always seen the photographs as single images, and was blown away watching how they could play together. There were images included that he’d initially felt unsure about but that now made sense to him within the context of the other photos.
The biggest part of the job for an editor is to provide an objective, critical eye, and convey a true sense of the narrative. They must determine how -and if- the images work together, and how they add to the story – together or alone. The utmost objective is in making the best choices for the book, with regard to -but not necessarily bowing to- the sentimental choices of the photographer whose work they are curating. These are decisions that require honest discussions. Both editor and photographer need to approach the project with a willingness to compromise, and the ability to present their case with steadfast resolve. The great thing about working with Bill Yates is that he was willing to discuss an image choice, make a case for why he felt it was important for the book, and then ultimately agree that I was right! 🙂 (kidding, Bill!)
Working on Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink was a labor of love and a privilege. Filled with life, youth, and saucy rebellion the kids of Sweetheart became real to me, as I know they’ve been to Bill and his family who have lived with these images all these years. How lucky we all are that Bill took that drive!
Bill Yates, Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink
Published by Fall Line Press
Reprinted with permission of South x Southeast photomagazine.