Photographer Bill Yates had an amazing photography project on his hands, but he just didn’t know it—for about 40 years. In 1972, Yates, then in his final year at the University of South Florida, spent seven months photographing young revelers at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Fla. He mostly forgot about the work up until recently, when he unearthed about 800 negatives from his archives and scanned them. The result is a delightful time capsule from a simpler, groovier era. “When I shot it, I was 26. I wasn’t thinking about documentation. I was just seeing something that looked interesting and somewhat out of the ordinary,” Yates said.
The project started simply as an experiment. Yates had recently purchased a Yashica Mat camera at a pawnshop and was looking to test it out. Driving through Hillsborough County, Fla., on a fall afternoon, he passed an unassuming old wooden building and decided to venture inside. He returned a few hours later and shot his first rowdy night of fun at the rink. The next night, he came back again. He was hooked. “It just became this routine,” Yates said. “I’d never done an extended series of work like this. I’d never used a medium-format camera before. I was mastering the equipment.”
At first, some of the kids at the rink were standoff-ish. But when Yates started bringing contact sheets of his photos of them, things changed. “It’s like they’d never seen themselves in a mirror before. After that, it was like I was their newest best friend,” he said.
As the months passed by, Yates became a regular and an insider. But the rink remained a stage where kids would perform for the camera, acting tough or goofy or wild from one moment to the next. Yates said the scenes now tap into a generation’s sense of nostalgia. “There’s a whole history involved in just the visuals alone. You’ve got kids wearing bell-bottom pants, wide belts, go-go boots. There’s the look, the hair, how people acted. You can read a lot into these images,” Yates said.
Yates said he always knew where the photos were, but among a collection of hundreds of thousands of negatives and digital images, he said it took a long time for him seek them out. “I’m at the age where I’m looking back and thinking about taking a retrospective view of my work and what I’ve accomplished. I want to put this stuff in order so my kids have it, and they can look at it and share it,” Yates said.
Yates moved to Rhode Island in 1973 to pursue an MFA in photography. About 20 years later, he returned to Hillsborough County in search of the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink but never found it. “Sometimes when you’re in the heat of the moment, you shoot and you don’t exactly know why. Sometimes work just needs to sit and simmer and it gets better with time. Then it becomes not only a good photograph, but it becomes a good historical document,” Yates said.