The first commercial drive-in movie theatre in the United States opened in 1933, just outside of Camden, New Jersey. In the car-centric late 1950s, drive-in theatres became very popular and reached a peak of over 4000 drive-in movie screens, nationwide in 1958.  One of the largest drive-in movie theatres featured spaces for 2500 cars, a children’s playground, and a restaurant on a 28-acre lot. 
Successful drive-ins required at least 15 acres of land and were located primarily in rural areas. With rising real estate prices and competition from video rental and expanding walk-in theaters showing first-run movies, the popularity of drive-in theatres began to wane.  Today, only 318 drive-in theatres remain in operation in the United States. 
The Sage Crest Drive-in opened in 1954 to a screening of Disney’s Living Desert. The theatre is located on Highway 95, outside of Yerington, Nevada, and near the abandoned massive Anaconda Copper Mine, of three superfund sites in the state of Nevada. The theatre featured a 65-foot-tall screen and could accommodate approximately 250 vehicles. The theater first closed in 1983 and re-opened several times over the years under new owners. Today, all that remains is a battered screen, ticket booth, a vandalized concession stand, and concrete-encased foundations for car speaker stands. The theatre officially closed in 1995 and later the site was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. With ownership of the property falling to the BLM, the site has become popular with RV boon dockers seeking free camping sites.
Traveling on Highway 95 over the last 20-plus years I’ve watched the Sage Crest Drive-in fall into ruin. I have stopped on several occasions to photograph at the site. My photographs taken over a 20-year period documents the Sage Crest Drive-in’s descent into near-complete ruin, but they also highlight how the choice with photographic technology influences the visual outcomes of photographs. The choices that photographers make with technology, as a component of their photographic language, influence and restrict the process of the photographs being created in profound ways. Every photograph is a result of the photographic technology selected by the photographer. Technology directly influences every photograph—change one piece of technology and we change the result and we can see these differences in the photographs I have taken of the site using different photographic technology.
The photographs created in 2003 employed 35mm film cameras and film stocks. The photograph from 2016, used a full-frame Sony digital camera and the most recent photographs were created with a mirrorless Lumix digital camera converted to full-spectrum imaging. Comparing the 2003 film-based photographs with the 2016 digitals photographs, a warmer and softer rendering is apparent in the earlier photographs. In the black and white photograph, created with a 400 ISO film of the “Exit Only” sign, we see noticeable grain covering the entire photograph, and a warmer tone, the result of a specialized DR-5 development process. The 2016 photographs record the site in a clear, transparent, and grainless color present in current digital photographs, whereas the grain in the film-based images envelops the photographs in a warm and unifying glow.
Sensing that site may soon be cleared, I returned in March 2022, hoping to add photographs of the site to an ongoing series, Abandoned Things. I found the screen further decayed, with more missing plywood, but still standing. The concession stand was thoroughly brutalized, with many of the car speaker stands and signage removed. Several campers had taken up semi-permanent residence on the west side of the concession stand, burning trash in an open fire.
These recent photographs of the Sage Crest Drive-in created with a full spectrum camera fitted with an external infrared filter accentuate the late afternoon clouds rolling over the site and present the abandoned site in unique color rendering. The infrared photographs are sharper than the earlier digital photographs taken at the site, bringing forward details in the plywood screen and the clouds moving over the site as well as presenting the namesake sage in a green-yellow glow.
The future of this historic site is uncertain, still, I was delighted to visit the site once again under optimum conditions for photography. David Arnold, April 2022.
 Statistics, United Drive-in Theatre Owner’s Association> https://www.uditoa.org/media.html
 Robin T. Reid, “The History of the Drive-in Movie Theatre,” May 27, 2008, Smithsonian Magazine > https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-the-drive-in-movie-theater-51331221/
 New York Film Academy>https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/
Amy Alonzo, “Historic sites impacted by proposed Anaconda land transfer, remediation work,” Mason Valley News, March 17, 2020 > https://www.rgj.com/story/news/local/mason-valley/2020/03/17/historic-sites-impacted-proposed-anaconda-land-transfer-remediation-work/5075308002/
2 thoughts on “Photographing at the Sage Crest Drive-in”
It’s interesting to see a direct comparison of evolving photographic technologies all existing together over the last 20 years, and how they provide the photographer with unique processes for expression.
The subject also relates to a paper I read several years ago which I got from one of my thesis project mentors. Much of my work over the past 15 years has focused on historic and decaying subjects, and he brought up the dichotomy of ‘decay as process’ versus ‘decay as enduring Romantic symbol’, which is how we typically view ruins.
Decay as Process is an approach I hadn’t considered before. I wrote a blog post on the subject that you might find interesting, and I’m including a link to the paper.
My blog post:
“Value of Ruins” Paper:
Here’s an abstract with link to the paper on the SemanticScholar website:
Thank you James for your comment and for the links you included. I will certainly take a look.
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