The humble photo booth

Harvest Magazine, Issue Four, Summer 2009/10

by Darron Davies


This is no ordinary photo. No. Unlike other photos one sees of the 1970's: rich blues, greens and yellows, barbecues in backyards, uncles posing with sexy nieces - this photo carries its own ambience.

It is black and white, passport-like, crude and interesting. It has been taken in a photo booth - those curious booths once found at railway stations, shopping centres and street corners.

My cousin and I had found the booth and, probably egging each other on, stepped into the tardis-like atmosphere to act the fool and get a few photos taken.

What remains is a grainy black and white photo. I am ten years of age and she is a teenager. I am in England, visiting my cousins for the first time. With denim top and long hair I look like a young Jimmy Osmond. She looks like an extra from a glam rock video.

I remember these photo booths and their strange feel. I recall their chemical smell. They offered privacy. One could remove oneself from the world and step into a photographic fantasy.

Looking into the reflective glass, waiting for the photos to be taken, we would shuffle on our narrow vinyl seats in anticipation of the flash.

At the end of the experience, curtain parted, we would return to the real world, waiting for our photos. We would laugh at the results. We got photos of a moment. We got photos of our feelings.

Moving forward thirty five years and I am walking through an arcade at Glen Waverley, an outer suburb of Melbourne, Australia. I am about to walk between two worlds.

A walk through the foyer of the arcade takes me to a photo booth sitting against a wall of movie posters.

Close examination of the booth reveals that it is an old booth. This isn't a modern day booth with digital printing. No, it is a wet chemical booth - a traditional style. What is it doing here? Do they still make and service these machines?

My mind returns to memories of photo booths - the most familiar being the one outside Flinders Street Station, the main Station in Melbourne. I recall people waiting for photos, how it was fun to pull back the curtain and explore inside.

The singer Elvis Costello may have also been mesmerized by this machine. It features in an early career clip, "I wanna be loved."

I step into the booth, sit on a small seat, and look into the two-way mirror. I pour eight 50 cent pieces into the slot and wait for the machine to start. There is movement above the screen, a camera shutter opens and a photo is taken. This is followed by two more photos. In the third photo I pull a face. I feel self-conscious having the booth to myself. These machines have a history of hilarity, and of shared space.

I pull back the curtain and step into the foyer. I hear groans within the machine. The photos are being developed. This is an archaic wet process. I wait the advertised four minutes and soon, from a frontal slot, a photo strip emerges.

It is a black and white strip and it is slightly wet. My heart leaps at the distortions, the black and white tones, the chemical spills. This is a traditional process. I handle the strip carefully. There is magic in holding the strip.

I think of the people who may choose to use this booth. What would they think of the black and white images, let alone the chemical distortions? These images must look strange in today's digital world.

I leave the foyer. Within minutes I am walking into another photographic world - a modern Photoplus store. It caters for a largely Asian teen market and has state of the art Japanese digital photo booths.

I take a plastic axe and hat from a display stand and step into a booth. I follow the spoken prompts and pose, like an idiot.

Moments later I move to a screen at the side of the booth. Using a digital pen I choose backgrounds. I write onto the screen following the prompts of an Americanized voice. Seconds later a colour photo strip emerges from a slot. It is a silly reminder.

Later I search the internet. I find a blog set up by a Melbourne teenage girl. Four photos are shown on the website, all taken within this store. The girls are smiling and laughing, wearing hats, rabbit ears and making peace signs. Love hearts, flowers and words adorn the photos. These photos, like traditional photo booth shots, will become treasures, reflections of a time and a place.

The history of photo booths is fascinating. First popularized in 1925 by the Siberian immigrant Anatol Josepho, they have played a small yet consistent role in photographic culture.

Photo booths - or Photomatons - as they were first called, became all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s, when simple and automated photography became available for the first time.

While there were other booths in existence, Josepho's design was sophisticated. It presented a high quality shot - a paper positive print that did not require a negative transparency. The invention was timely. It fitted into a dime and quarter culture that had engulfed America.

Josepho eventually sold the rights to his machine. Earning the equivalent of $10 million in today's money he walked away a rich man.

Josepho lived to see machines popularized all over the world - a throwaway culture that presented cheap photos, or mementoes to be cherished.

Many designs followed. Booths became fixtures on street corners, others in shops where there was the added promise of enlargements, framing and hand tinting.

While the first booths had an attendant supporting the sitter, later designs allowed people the freedom to pose unhindered.

People stepped into photo booths to get an instant ID photo. Couples could create a record of their night out - some becoming a poignant reminder of a serviceman lover who would leave to serve overseas.

Photography became personal and immediate. Photographs became cherished possessions, passing through family hands. Others would be discarded like postcards.

Recent books such as American Photobooth, by Nakki Goranin, and Photobooth, by Babbette Hines, show that there is a growing interest in photo booth photography.

In these books one sees all manner of poses from the 1920s until the 1970s. Some are intimate and tender portraits of women, staring into the lens. Others are shy, awkward, wooden poses. Women pose with men. Women pose with other women. Men pose together.

There is intimacy and tenderness: heads touching, cheeks together, cuddling. There is an intimacy that points to friendship.

There are wacky photos from the 1960s: wide eyed, wide mouthed, people clowning. Some photos are more self conscious. People have an understanding of the photographic process and how to manufacture a look.

Artists can also be seen creating work. Andy Warhol took sitters to photo booths and directed photo sessions by pouring coins into slots. The surrealists, such as Dali, or Andre Breton, posed in booths, eyes closed - a record of a dreamed world that they championed.

Other photographs simply became artistic by way of accident, by way of the accidental pose, or by way of the currency that the image has acquired overtime.

There are only a few images of the famous and enigmatic blues singer Robert Johnson. One was taken in a photo booth. It has been immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp.

These images evoke another era. They raise questions: do we know the sitters, their backgrounds, relationships, or the true meaning of the photograph? Perhaps the camera went off too early. Did we capture a true image of the person, or the mask? Answers we will never know.

What is apparent is the ambiguity of the photographs, our inability to understand the original context, how we project a meaning onto the photographs that may not be there.

Photo booths are nostalgic. This is most apparent on the website Here one can see artistic projects dedicated to the photo booth, references to booths in art, in films and in songs.

According to Brian Meacham, co-editor of the photo booth website, "the tone and contrast of photos produced by a well-maintained booth can be quite incredible, and since they are made by a direct positive process using no negative, each is a unique, one-of-a-kind work of art." He concludes though, "Now the photo booth is in the twilight of its life. People who were fans of it before, as well as new converts - who have an eye for the dying arts of the past - are holding on enthusiastically."

One only has to see the French film 'Amelie' to see how the photo booth has become a magical relic pointing to a supposedly more innocent era.

It is as if photography is perceived as dry and common nowadays. Photo booths point to a time in which there was magic in photography - a fascination with the process and the outcome.

Scan through the site and one can see how traditional photo booths are making a comeback. Type "photobooth" into the Flickr and there are hundreds of results. Look at Ebay and you can see many photos for sale.

Photo booths can be hired for parties. Collectors fiercely collect old machines and maintain their operation.

Sadly, with the evidence of increasingly costly chemicals, and hard to access photographic paper, there are signs that old booths are on the way out.

According to Brian Meacham, "The traditional photo booth is managing to hang on, but is only barely viable in the United States and Canada, and as a niche market item in other countries, including Germany, France, and Australia. People still use them for various projects, some of which we've documented on our site, and will continue to do so as long as they can find one available, but they'll only be around as long as the technology (chemicals, paper, and technical know-how) manages to stay alive."

Ironically, as digital photography becomes more accessible, so there is a small yet growing interest in vernacular and traditional photographic methods.

Where there is image spill and uncertainty in the photograph there will also be surprise!

This is something I love about some of the collodian photographs of Sally Mann. Taken with a large clunky field camera, crude counting for exposure, I love the magical imperfections in the process - the chemical spills and varied tones, how an ordinary location is made ethereal.

I put my photo booth shots in my pocket and walk away, comparing modern digital images with the older chemical process.

I reflect on old and modern day booths. I ponder over an experience I hade several years ago with a photo booth in the same shopping centre.

It was a modern booth that promised quick digital prints - more a passport machine than an invitation to an event.

What intrigued me, though, was the placing of an 'Amelie' film poster on the side of the booth.

Was this accidental? Was it an incredibly clever, yet obscure, marketing campaign referring to the role of the booth in the film? I will never know.

What I do know is that no matter how machines come and go - the above machine is still there - there will always be a small and curious fascination with these machines. Like westerns they will never fully ride into the west.

There is always the promise of some staying in town: Click! Click! Click! Click!

Contributed by Darron Davies