Bill Yates has been a photographer for most of his life and has practiced many different applications of the medium. Visit his website, billyatescypix.com, and you'll see ravishing examples of his aerial photography, for example, beautifully framed landscapes lush with color.
Then visit sweetheartrollerskatingrink.com and you'll find an edgy portfolio in black and white that doesn't look as if it had come from the same lens. In a sense, it didn't. Yates, 69, shot that group of photographs more than four decades ago when he was a young man studying photography at the University of South Florida.
Images Yates captured at a skating rink in Tampa in 1972 and 1973 began accidentally, when he was driving around looking for subjects and found the Sweetheart. For many months, it was his private muse, a thing apart from class assignments. The photographs he took there were good enough and interesting enough to help secure his admission to the prestigious graduate photography program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Students there were advised to put away their earlier predilections, so Yates packed his in a box that waited in storage for years to be re-appreciated.
The photos have emerged to critical acclaim after he decided to haul them out and edit them. He began with 800 shots, 600 of them usable, and further winnowed the group down to 150. They are currently in an exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans that continues through Jan. 17.
Yates also comes to St. Petersburg on Dec. 2 for a talk at Green Bench Brewery.
The photographs have a familiarity to them, seemingly connected to work by Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus, but they are unique. The children, teens and adults Yates photographed as they mingled and skated on weekend nights are not Winogrand's street photography, shot randomly and often without the subject's knowledge. Nor do they share Arbus' taste for the bizarre. They tell a story, like a documentary but without the preordained message of one. Yates shot what he found, and didn't realize fully what he had accomplished until a long time later. Not only were the photographs found, so was a small part of the past that reflected an era.
Picture this: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, orange groves and ranches still occupied swaths of Hillsborough County. Radiating from the downtown Tampa core were areas that still seemed more rural than even suburban. That was the world of the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, located in a part of Tampa known as Six Mile Creek. It was home to working-class families, and the roller rink was one of the biggest weekend gathering places for the community. Tempting to say it was a simpler time, but there was nothing simple about it to look at Yates' photographs, in which angst and joy, swagger and ennui coexist.
The most compelling group is the photos of teens in various attitudes of strength and vulnerability. Sometimes both. A standout is the portrait of a beautiful young man, shirtless, with a pint of schnapps tucked into his jeans. He has to know he's a hunk, but something in his eyes begs to differ. Yates captures people skating around the circular rink in battered four-wheel skates, including one father holding a baby, which is probably now illegal, but the sidelines seem to be the places where he got to know his subjects.
What's true of the portfolio is Yates' refusal to be judgmental or even editorial. As the visitors got to know him, they took the presence of his camera for granted. The adults mostly ignore him, the younger people love posing for him. That could be interpreted as an artificial aspect, but Yates lets them appear as they wished, on their terms. He may have been, as we are today, stunned by photographs of preteens smoking, but we see no evidence of it.
The rink is gone now, and who knows where the surviving people are; Yates kept no names. But they live on, in all their mystery.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.