Photographer in a Box

Strongbox, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2010

by Todd Hryckowian


I was young; young enough where I wasn't allowed to roam the mall without holding my mother's or sister's hand. It stood directly across from me: the photobooth positioned so my face reflected in a mirror affixed to it. A mysterious box, a red velvet curtain, and a mirror reflecting my five- year-old face, big brown eyes and bowl haircut.

The flash fired bright four times, and a young couple exited. They were giggling; she fixed her hair, reapplied her make- up, and they continued to kiss until the photostrip slid into the slot. They were a couple when they went in, any anonymous couple in that mall. When they left, they were the happiest people around. My sister tugged my arm, and I followed my family to the next store, keeping my eyes on the photobooth until the crowd closed around it.

About 15 years later, I had my second encounter. I was in Pittsburgh with my first real girlfriend, and we went to a show at the newly-opened Andy Warhol Museum. She was a little further out of my league than I thought possible, and I was constantly working hard to impress her. It was New Year's Eve, and I was the typical broke college student. I had enough money for a cheap dinner, a cheaper bottle of wine, gas to Pittsburgh, and the 10 bucks I needed for tickets to Pittsburgh's First Night celebration. This granted us access to all the museums in the city, and we aimed straight for the Warhol. They were having a time capsule ceremony, and were inviting people to create time capsules that would be buried on the grounds to be dug up 0 years later. I had done my research, steered us to the photobooth, and we put our strip into the capsule, where no doubt it would one day be excavated, and we could show our children, grandchildren, and great children this memento.

Yeah, things didn't work out that way, but that is what photobooths represented to me: mystery and romance. When I say romance, I don't necessarily mean in the common sense meaning of the word; more the traditional sense: something that connects a person to another time and place. You go into an elegant box, and you come out with a memory - a keepsake - something that captured a moment that our parents and grandparents might have shared.

There's a ritual to the process, which brings to mind another time and place in your history, and connects you to it. Soldiers heading off to war, wanting to leave something behind to their friends, families, and loved ones. A group of friends on their first unaccompanied trip to a mall or fair, all trying to cram into that booth at once. A young couple on a date; not their first date, but the one where they finally decide that they' a couple. If you wanted to capture that charming moment, for decades you sought out a photobooth.

The invention of the photobooth has a charming history. Invented by Russian immigrant Anatol Josepho, the photobooth was created out of his desire to give photography to the common person. Before this, only the rich could afford to have their picture taken, and usually only on special occasions. The immigrants, the soldiers going off to war, the common people had no access to it. Even if they could afford a camera, the cost of film, developing it, and even hiring someone to use the camera were all prohibitive. A fair analogy would be like having a portrait painted. Josepho was definitely a member of this class; he left Omsk, Siberia at the age of 15, and did not see his beloved father for decades after. Imagine starting life over in a new land, speaking a new language, and learning new customs, without something simple like looking on the face of your parents for support and strength through it all. He traveled the world and learned. Basing the initial designs on a few years in Russian technical schools and many more years of experience working and tinkering with the camera, he developed prototype after prototype. He invented the photographic paper that bypassed the need to have a negative, and the mechanism by which a coin triggered the whole process. He developed this machine and improved upon it until his invention debuted at the corner of 1st Street and Broadway in September 1925. An average of 7500 people each day paid a quarter for the ability to do something that had previously been out of their reach. They got their picture taken. They walked away with a strip of pictures, and a memory that they could share and pass along. In turn, I've asked a few photographers to share their photobooth memories with us.

My friend Sanda and I met to spend this sunny day in May together walking through Berlin, sitting at the Spree, and talking. One of our stops was the photobooth. We wanted to have something on the photos; some kind of an object that would make the photos funnier or more special in a way. Because we had two pocket mirrors with us we just used those and tried to have one eye shown in each mirror.This turned out to be kind of difficult- at least for me. It really was a fun day.The photobooth-strip is just a great little memory.

~ Alicia Kassebohm

Musée Mécanique San Francisco

My most exciting photobooth pieces are the ones where I try to use the entire series of squares to capture a single idea. I'm turning around the typical separate-poses take on the photobooth and making it something else by tricking the viewer and making multiple shots look like a single image. This method translates all the squares from individual images into one single infinite canvas to work on. It's like a timed photographic puzzle. As long as you have $3 to keep shelling out, you can keep trying until you get it right but no matter what, those few seconds in between the flash of the next photo are so stressful. Like a timed math test or stealing...not necessarily difficult, just a weird source of excitement or anxiety that can trip you up and make you lose focus on what needs to happen.

You can't set up a tripod or even look through a lens, all placements are based off former photobooth shots or just pure guessing.Though I appreciate and even envy very manual photographers, I never shoot that way with a camera and that helps translate into a near total lack of control in the photobooth. No apertures, no shutter or film speeds, no dodging or burning, pushing or pulling...just a photo that you take for how it is and work around it, instead of manipulating it to work for you. Using a photobooth as my camera of choice reflects my personality and views on, no expectations, just working with what comes up.

~ Victoria Jarvis

The Kiss

A Photobooth IS fun, no doubts about it.We started to use it when we got together, as a couple. When we found analog photobooths taking different shots (they were disappeared at that time in Italy) we started to think to something different to "normal" group or funny faces photos, we tried to go beyond the borders, we tried to use all the available features of the booth, like the pause between the  shots, the complete available space in the booth and blank spaces.

Lately analog photobooths are coming back here in Europe, more photobooths mean for us more fun, more chances to meet new people, to do new projects.

~ Marco Ferrari and Arianna Maiello

This photo of my parents is one of my favorites. It's from a photo booth in Niagara Falls, where they honeymooned in November 13, 3 years almost to the exact date that my husband Jeff and I went on our own honeymoon (there goes the freaky date connections with my family - my sister's anniversary is in November). I scanned it and left it as-is: speckled with dust, torn in half and tattered at the edges. It makes me a bit sad, knowing they'd be divorced only a few years later. They are so young and for that moment, happy.

~ Lisa Topoz

Dad and Me in a Photobooth

I have no recollection of when this picture of my father and me was taken. It must have been around 10 or 11. I wonder what happened to the other three photos from that session. In this picture, my father is younger than I am today. It's strange to be able to see him as a young man, because from my perspective he has always been older and wiser, a symbol of authority and experience.As a child I looked up to him as someone who had all the answers. This is why old family photos fascinate me. I look at them now and I see a completely different world than the one I experienced as a child. And the adults who populated that world are just normal human beings, not the wise and powerful giants that I knew them as back then.

~ Yan Basque Thériault

Contributed by Victoria Jarvis