Lives, Wallet-Sized: Self-Portraits of a Community

Duke Magazine, May-June 2005

by Patrick Adams


Last January, Mark Pike '04 and Blaise Dipersia '03, friends and former roommates, became co-proprietors of a model 21T color photo booth. The booth is located on the second floor of the Bryan Center, appropriately halfway between a row of vending machines and a film theater. As is required of on-campus vendors, Pike and Dipersia had recently incorporated, and they hoped to kick off the official opening of their new business, Foto Fresh Corp., with a promotional offer: free photos.

There was just one problem. The booth wasn't working. Things were jamming, screeching, buzzing. A turn of the key, which triggers the photographing process, produced nothing but an out-of-order groan. "It sounds like it's coming from the camera," said Dipersia. "But it could be the engine." He opened a door inside the booth, revealing the "spider": five steel arms designed to clench a strip of film, dip it in a chemical tub, lift, and repeat until the image is developed. "It's like a little dark room in a box," he said admiringly. "But the technology--it's, like, forty years old. It's ancient."

According to Pike, the idea of putting a photo booth in the Bryan Center came to him during a class with Sam Stephenson, a research associate in the Center for Documentary Studies. The class, "Dream Street: Reading Cities and Towns Today Through Photography," focused on a body of work by the late Life photographer W. Eugene Smith, whose photographs of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s exposed one of the defining paradoxes of American life: the industrial might of cities and the general impoverishment of the laborers who built them. But it was the work of another pioneering documentarian, the Austrian-born August Sander, that made the biggest impression on Pike.

"Sander would ride his bicycle around the German countryside--this was in the early 1900s--and he'd set up his equipment for people to make their own portraits," says Pike. "He wanted to create this visual record of German society." Indeed, Sander had big plans. He called his project, which he pursued for more than forty years, until his death in 1964, "People of the Twentieth Century." He envisioned a "physiognomic image of an age."

"One day we were looking at his photos," says Pike, "and Stephenson said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if someone did something like that on a college campus?' He was talking about our class project. We all had to come up with a novel way of documenting the community. And I thought, maybe I could do that with a photo booth. Blaise and

I had always talked about getting one. We'd just never had a good reason."

Pike told Dipersia about the plan. They'd buy the booth, set it up in the middle of campus, and, like Sander, create a sort of "community self-portrait." On one side of the booth, they'd mount a mailbox. Next to the mailbox, they'd leave a stack of questionnaires for people to write down their names and addresses and descriptions corresponding to the pictures they had taken. Pike and Dipersia would make a pickup once a week, scan the photos, archive them online, and then mail them back to the address listed on the questionnaire.

"But then it occurred to us," says Dipersia. "Where does one get a photo booth? So we looked on eBay." After a couple of weeks, they found a seller: Gary Gulley. He had not one but twelve photo booths for sale. "First, we wanted to find out who this Gary Gulley was. We were like, Who on Earth has a dozen photo booths for sale? Nice thing about eBay, you can find out what people have purchased in the past."

"Right," says Pike. "So we checked him out: A football. A pair of khakis. All the sequels to Tremors."

"But not the original," says Dipersia.

"Right, not the original. And an autographed Evil Knievel bike helmet."

"So he seemed like a good guy."

Gulley, it turned out, was a salesman with Photo Me U.S.A., a subsidiary of Photo Me International, the company that patented the four-strip-style upright booth in the 1940s. It now operates more than 30,000 machines in 110 countries. "So we called him up," says Pike, "and a couple of weeks later, Blaise was on a flight down to Dallas."

Gulley met Dipersia at the airport and drove him to the Photo Me U.S.A. warehouse on the edge of town. Inside were hundreds of photo booths, Dipersia recalls. "All different kinds. I saw one that was a telephone booth flanked on either side by photo booths. It was like a spaceship."

A mechanic named Ed gave Dipersia his first lesson in maintaining the machine, showing him what to do when the gears jammed or the film got stuck or the pictures came out amiss. Plenty of things could go wrong, Ed warned. And they would. But, of course, that was part of the booth's charm, its antique appeal. "Could be the chemicals are low. Could be the chute isn't lined up with the hair dryer. Could be a million things," says Dipersia. "But it makes that picture you get more special, you know? You get something real. You can hold it. You can put it in your wallet. You can cut it up. One for you, one for your girlfriend, one for grandma!"

Dipersia made the purchase and had the photo booth shipped to the Bryan Center, where, on a recent Friday, after an hour of tinkering around, he seemed to have fixed the problem. "I think we're back in business," he told Pike. "It's working." They began soliciting passersby. "You wanna free photo?" Dipersia hollered to a group of four women click-clacking their way to a rush meeting. "Um...suuuuure," they said.

"Can we all get in?" Dipersia nodded. They dropped their purses, lifted the curtain, and shuffled in, two in front, two in back.

"When is it going to go?!"

"I don't know!"

"Move your head in!"

"It's about to take it!"

"Oh my God!"

"Oh my God!"

"Oh my God, it just took it!"


Dipersia called out again. "Free photos!" Pike walked down the hall and invited employees from the McDonald's to come by. Soon a crowd had gathered, an assortment of strangers. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a sort of party had emerged. People milled about waiting for their turn in line or for their pictures to develop. Music played on a pair of speakers hooked up to an

iPod, and hors d'oeuvres, in the form of McDonald's chicken nuggets, made their way around the room. "Can I make a mean face?" asked Aaron Kirschenfeld, a senior. "You can make any kind of face you want," said Dipersia.

"This is a family tradition. I have a bunch of these of my kids and me on my file cabinet," said Mary Creason, a lecturer in physics. "Dang," she said, looking at the photos she'd just taken. "They gave me bunny ears."

Wil Weldon '96, an instructor in film and video, was on his way to a film-editing workshop in the basement of the Bryan Center. "I think I may have seen one other photo booth in the entire state," said the Thomasville, North Carolina, native. "It's art in progress. It's staged and it's contrived. But with four photographs, you capture something happening between the first and the last--something totally spontaneous."

Pike looked on with amusement. He seemed pleased. The booth was working, and not just in the mechanical sense. It was bringing a community together. There had been moments like this before, he said. Like the time seven Turkish students packed in all at once. "That's the record," he said. Or the time President Keohane dropped in for a visit. "We were like, 'You wanna get in?' And she got in!" Or the time Pike left the key in the booth and rushed back to get it at two a.m.

"I was getting ready for bed. And I remembered I left the key. And I was worried somebody might steal the money inside. So I threw on my clothes and drove to the Bryan Center. I run down the stairs, and, just as I get there, I see these two people getting out of the booth. It's a police officer and a security guard. I'm like, 'Is my key still in there?' They're kind of startled, and the policeman says, 'Uh. Yeah, yeah. We were--I just got a call that somebody left a, uh, a key. We were ... checking it out.' And as they're standing there explaining this, a strip falls out of the machine.

"In the first picture, they look pretty confused. But after the flash goes off, they realize what they've done. In the second one, they're looking at each other and sort of grinning. And by the fourth picture, they're laughing hysterically. They're both facing the camera--these two strangers--and they're smiling, with their arms over each other's shoulders, and I think they just figured, 'We're stuck in here. We're stuck in this moment.' And they embraced it."

© 2005 Duke University

Contributed by Brian