Photographers allow us to see pieces of the world that we normally miss – historic events, fleeting expressions on people’s faces, the urban fabric of the places in which we live. Matt Lambros is a New York City-based photographer who does just that. He captures photographs of spaces that have long been abandoned to distant memories – concealed behind decaying walls and “No Trespassing” signs. The subjects of his lens are the abandoned theaters of a time when, as Lambros describes, theater-going was a celebrated social event.
For the past two years Lambros has been photographing theaters for “After the Final Curtain“, a personal project that is a collection of photographs of abandoned theaters throughout the United States. Thus far he has photographed approximately thirty theaters and has many more scheduled. He shares with us some of his favorites – join us after the break to see more…
Matt Lambros’ fascination with abandoned spaces began at an early age. He recalls, “My grandmother used to babysit my little brother and I and anytime she saw an abandoned barn or a creepy house we would go inside – me at the age of four and my little brother at one in her arms – and tour through these old places.” His grandmother’s hobby caught on, and at around the age of twenty Lambros began to photograph the abandoned spaces he visited, which at this stage happened to be abandoned mental hospitals. His interest sprang from the classic imagery of post-apocalpyse horror movies, and with a degree in photo-journalism from Boston University, he had the right tools to explore this fascination.
The depressing world of abandoned mental hospitals soon shifted to abandoned theaters – architecture that celebrates social gathering. The first theater Lambros stumbled upon was the Loew’s Kings in Flatbush, built in 1929 and shut down in 1977. He immediately fell in love with the architecture, describing it as a “gorgeous red velvet palace”. After some research he discovered a wealth of information about how theaters functioned decades ago, and with that a plethora of abandoned theaters all over the country.
But this was just the beginning. The shutting down of many of these theaters, Lambros soon learned, was the due to the rise of the multiplex cinemas. The theaters that Lambros photographs, which shut down in the 70s and 80s, typically only showed one movie at a time for a few weeks. The multiplex, which is ubqiuitous today, became much more popular, more convenient, and thrived on the explosive commercial growth of the cinema.
But these theaters are valuable architectural artifacts of American culture. There are many layers to be discovered within Lambros‘ photographs and intrinsically within the spaces he visits. The intrigue of these spaces lies in their history, in the stories they have left behind, and in their past social value. They also leave a mark on our future. These spaces that have been left for ruin reveal the shifts in our social priorities and leave behind an eerie image of what the urban environment we have created can become without our care.
Not all of these theaters have been completely forgotten. In typical urban fashion, many of the spaces have been reappropriated for other small business uses. The Paramount Theater in Newark, Lambros mentions, had its “lobby turned into an army navy store with the still preserved auditorium in the back, often used for storage.” Many others have become grocery stores, shoe stores, and furniture stores – constantly changing but always leaving the treasures of the theaters’ pasts inside – decorative motifs, elaborate mosaics and sculptures – hidden away and indistinguishable from the street.
Matt Lambros is currently involved with a documentary called Popcorn Palaces about the rise, fall and rebirth of these theaters. He continues to hunt down and explore these decaying spaces, frequently encountering restorationists and historical preservationists that share his interest. When asked about his motivation, Lambros says “I want to shine light on forgotten spaces, help people remember or find out what is there.” Passing by most of these spaces, one would never guess what lies inside behind the concrete and brick walls – until they’ve taken a look at Matt Lambros’ photographs.