For a few years now, we’ve been keeping our eyes out for images from Paul Fejos’ seminal silent film Lonesome, the story of a man and woman who meet, fall in love, become separated, and finally reunited, all in the same day. I’d had a tip from our friend Klaas that the film had a photobooth sequence in it, and finally had a chance to see the film a few years ago, but just this month, I’ve finally managed to get ahold of some images from the film to add to our list the film that has, to my knowledge, the earliest appearance of a photobooth in cinema.
The photobooth, labeled “Auto Photo,” produces a single photo in a circular disc, a product that a number of different photobooth companies were providing at the time. The photo is produced nearly instantaneously in the film, creating a precedent that nearly every film since has followed, as editors ignore the photochemical reality and show the photostrips appearing just seconds after the photos were taken. Lonesome also sets the pattern for the use of the photobooth photo in the narrative structure of the film. First, it is a symbol of the love the two share, a memento of Coney Island, where they met. Later in the film, when they’ve become separated, both Mary and Jim use their photos of each other to show a carnival worker, asking if he’s seen their lost love. And finally, at the end of the film, Jim pulls out his tiny photo of Mary and looks at it longingly, convinced that he has lost the girl he fell in love with that day.
Look at the still images from the film to get a better sense of how the images fit into the movie as a whole. And if you ever have a chance to see the film screened — prints do circulate, both in the United States and Europe — I recommend it highly, not just for the photobooth sequence, but for its compelling and magical artistry. It really is silent cinema at its best.