There’s a lot to love in Bill Yates’s show at Hathaway Contemporary, but one image keeps coming back to me. Like all the photographs in “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink,” it was shot between September 1972 and the spring of 1973 at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Hillsborough County, Florida, just outside of Tampa. In it, four lean and shirtless, shaggy-haired, teenage boys stare directly at the camera. One squats down in front of the others wearing boots and jeans with a hand pointing a gun—a very realistic toy gun—at his own head. The kid’s giddy smile is engaging, even though it also exposes a desperate need for orthodontic work. His thick hair barely conceals his huge ears. He’s the class clown, trying to get a laugh, but it’s not clear that his mostly unsmiling buddies are enjoying the joke.
This frantic, gritty joy permeates the show and gives it power. It’s what must have captivated Yates when he made the photographs 44 years ago. Following a stint in the Navy, Yates had just finished a degree in art and photography at the University of South Florida in Tampa when he stumbled across the rink in 1972. “I had just purchased a medium format, twin lens camera and, as usual, I was out riding around looking for something to shoot,” he writes. When he came across the Sweetheart, a wooden building from the 1930s, he asked the owner if he could take some photographs. “Sure, the owner replied, “but if you want some good ones, come back tonight—this place will be jumpin’.” He shot eight rolls over the weekend, and kept on until the late spring of 1973.
After wrapping up the project, Yates went off to the Rhode Island School of Design to study with such figures as Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, and the photographs went into a box. His career kicked off with a solo show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., but critical attention and financial success didn’t go hand in hand. He went on to become a gallery director in New Mexico for several years and eventually established himself as an aerial and fine art photographer in his native city of Jacksonville, Florida. He didn’t return to the Sweetheart photographs until 2013. The fascinating story of how they made their way into the public eye is nicely told in this article at the Bitter Southerner published just before the exhibition opened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in October 2015.
For the Hathaway show, curator Mary Stanley, who selected the photographs specifically for the exhibition as part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, has made good use of the space’s long, rectangular shape, itself evocative of a roller rink. Starting on the left side of the room as you walk in, you can stroll through a night at the Sweetheart, beginning with an image of the building’s exterior shot during the day. From there, you move first past skaters whirling around the rink. Especially captivating is one dark-haired teenager wearing a dress shirt with rolled up-sleeves and squatting on his battered black skates. He puffs on a cigarette, smoke swirling around him. Continuing through the exhibition, you pass tween-aged chain smokers, shirtless boys in flared pants, girls in crop tops, bottles of peppermint schnapps kept handy in waistbands, and (not surprisingly) various expressions of underage libido—from kissing couples to a pseudo-pornographic image of a boy standing over a girl as he lights her cigarette.
On the back wall, there are older kids, bigger crowds, more smoking and kissing, and more glorious reminders of how outlandish 1970s fashion could be. On the right wall, things wind down. One couple in their 30s—probably parents who came to pick up their kids from all this good clean fun—sit together on a battered wooden bench and stare directly at the camera. The woman wears makeup, and, inexplicably, curlers; the man, with a protruding Adam’s apple and wavy dark hair, looks dressed for a casual evening out in an only-in-1972 combo of patterned vest and wide-collared dress shirt. A solemn girl in a striped shirt stands in front of an grimy fan above a wall of ancient boards. A young boy sleeps on a bench. Finally, set apart from the other photographs, a teenage girl sits alone against a black sky, looking with empty eyes off to her left as if her world had just crashed to an end.
Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden, writes in the exhibition catalogue that these photographs offer one of the “definitive visual records of youth culture in the American South” and specifically pre-Disney Florida. It’s an exuberant and hopeful culture, even if the youthful energy can’t entirely conceal the tired old building, the worn skates, and the difficulties papered over with cigarettes and alcohol. The kid with the toy gun is emblematic of this contrast, exposing a thin layer of despair beneath the smiling facades. But despite these tensions, it’s a joy to hang out with the Sweetheart crowd of 40 years ago, to know them as vibrant and wildly alive, skating and kissing, drinking and smoking, wringing pleasure out of every moment. You can’t help but root for them. You hope that somehow, they made it.
Bill Yates’s “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” is on view at Hathaway Contemporary through November 5. An accompanying book, published by Fall Line Press, will be available in select bookstores beginning November 7.
Jami Moss Wise is a current participant in the Art Writers Mentorship Program and a regular contributor to BURNAWAY. She works full-time with her artist husband.