In September 1972, Bill Yates had just begun his senior year in college, studying photography at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Yates, who had newly acquired a Yashica 2-¼ twin lens camera, was driving through nearby rural Hillsborough County, just outside of Tampa, when he spotted the old, white-painted wooden building that housed the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink.
Yates stopped immediately, met the owner (who happened to be standing in the dirt parking lot when Yates drove up), and easily got permission to photograph the skating action that night. As it was a neighborhood gathering place, with not many other nearby places to socialize, it must have been a bit odd for Yates, a stranger, to suddenly show up to take pictures of them skating. In order to ingratiate himself to the community, Yates processed film immediately after leaving that first night, returning the following night with proof sheets to display for the patrons. In 1972, it was far from the norm to be able to see a picture the day after it had been taken, and seeing their own pictures enthralled the skaters. Thus began the project that Yates continued through Spring 1973, photographing almost every single weekend until he graduated from college.
Though at first Yates was, as he says, “a real sensation,” the skaters, who were largely regulars, got used to him and he was able to photograph without much fanfare. The crowd was mostly teenage-aged and younger, as well as some who may have worked in the nearby orange groves. The owner and his wife carefully monitored the action, which made it a safe place for parents to leave their children while they patronized the bar next door.
Describing his shooting method, Yates says, “A lot was shot instinctively, on the fly, with a pre-focused camera, and a flash setup so that between six and twelve feet, the exposure would be perfect. I often didn’t look through the viewfinder because it meant I’d have to look down. I would just wait for expressions and fire.”
Apart from a box of 20 or so prints that he’s shown people occasionally, Yates kept the rest of the work—about 800 images in total, most never printed—in storage. Yates had no particular reason for keeping this work hidden away for near forty years; essentially, he was busy living his life. When he moved into a new, larger studio not long ago, Yates randomly unpacked the box the images had been stored in and saw them for the first time in almost four decades. Of course by now, the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink lives on only in photographs as, after the roller skating fad died out, the entire area was bulldozed to make room for an industrial warehouse park.
A video interview with Yates can be viewed here. With this series, Yates won a spot in the top 50 in Photolucida’s Critical Mass photography competition last year. Some of the work will be on view next month, along with the other winners, at CordenPotts in San Francisco. Yates posts daily photographs of his Southern wanderings at Down Southern Roads.
All photographs © 2014 Bill Yates. All rights reserved.