The strange allure of photo booths

Chicago Tribune 5/25/2004
by Robert K. Elder


Five minutes into our conversation, Gary Gulley articulates my fascination with photo booths, those magical vendors of four vertical photographs.

"It kind of flashes unpredictably -- catches you the least little bit off guard," says Gulley, sales executive for Photo-Me USA, the American division of one of the two largest photo booth companies in the world. "It catches you in transition."

In other words, they capture the most real you.

For me, finding a photo booth is like discovering a chocolate egg long after Easter has ended. They're often stashed away in the forgotten corners of America, in the dusty backroom of bars or lost in aging arcades.

As the son of Baby Boomers, I didn't grow up in the height of photo booth popularity during the 1940s, '50s and '60s -- but I still plug in the $2 or $3 wherever I find them.

Photo booths, in recent years, have enjoyed a heightened profile. They played a pivotal role in the breakout French comedy "Amelie," and no fewer than three photo booth books have hit the shelves in the past two years. But nationally, fewer than 1,500 vintage photo booths dot a map of the U.S., according to Photo-Me -- although competitor Fantasy Entertainment has produced 3,500 "foto" machines, which use modern technology to vend digital pictures of different sizes and variations.

In the post-World War II boom of the photo booth craze, more than 30,000 units found homes in train stations, tourist destinations and corner dime stores. It's difficult to ascertain if photo booths are experiencing resurgence or if they are continuing to quietly go extinct, so I hit the road to document the state of booths in Chicagoland and nail down their cultural allure.

Outside the U.S., 90 percent of all photo booth images are used for official I.D. documents. In the U.S., Gulley tells me, 90 percent of photo booth pictures are impulse entertainment buys.

I've taken so many photo strips over the years, you could probably arrange them in a book, flip through rapidly and watch my hairline retreat. Whenever I'm under the black lights at Diversey River Bowl, I step into the booth. Breakfast in Rogers Park's Heartland Cafe demands a post-omelet photo shoot. While reporting this story, I climbed into every photo booth I could find.

"Why don't you try to get someone into the booth with you at each place?" suggested my editor.

This turned out to be an exceptionally bad idea.

At Woodmar Mall in Hammond, Ind., I found that even with business card in hand and the purest of motives, asking strangers to join me in the photo booth was interpreted as severely creepy.

The photo booth experience, it seems, is a distinctly intimate one, yet that is part of its allure. The illicit sound of the curtain being pulled across the closet-size doorway, a thin barrier from public space, creates a sense of privacy -- often bringing out the exhibitionist in people, says director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour," "Red Dragon").

Ratner installed a black-and-white photo booth in his game room and recently published "Hilhaven Lodge: The Photo Booth Pictures" (powerHouse Books, $35) a showcase of his celebrity houseguests.

"It's the greatest invention ever made," says Ratner, whose mother introduced him to photo booths when he was young. "It's like fashion photography -- there's a direct flash, and it blows the lines out. Even people who are the most self-conscious aren't when they are alone behind the curtain."

In Ratner's book, a ghost-white Michael Jackson sticks his tongue out. A bespectacled Britney Spears makes moose antlers with her fingers. Edward Norton and Salma Hayek, dressed in formal wear, share the booth and a kiss.

"There were a lot of middle fingers, a lot of people with their tongues out," Ratner says. "There was also a lot of flashing, although I didn't publish those."

In Pilsen's Skylark Bar, Just Joking Jerry -- lawyer by day/performance artist by night -- used the establishment's photo booth to shoot pictures of himself with 100 different people. Naked. The rules: Both Jerry and his subject must disrobe, but the subject controlled the shoot and could do with the photos as he or she pleased.

He thought the project would take him a year.

It took five months. About 30 percent of his subjects, Jerry says, gave him part or all of their photos, which will remain in his private collection. He considered part of the performance art simply convincing people to participate.

"It's a quasi-public space. It's private in the sense that it's a booth with a curtain," Jerry explains. "The vast majority would never take off their clothes in public. On the other hand, doing it in the photo booth, they feel more comfortable doing that."

Dee Taira, co-owner of the Skylark and owner of Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village, loves the booths she has in both locations. For the last 15 years, Taira has produced a one-sheet poster, a photo calendar of Rainbo regulars using pictures taken in the black-and-white photo booth tucked behind the bar. The calendars make a pictorial history of the neighborhood and her customers. She has seen her poster in Japan and all over Europe, Taira says.

"Everyone wants to be in the calendar," she says. "You'll see marriages and breakups and you'll see people's kids grow up."

People find vintage photo booth shots not only allow a greater depth of field but capture four little moments in time, like a movie strip.

"You can create a little story," says Vanessa Stalling, 28, a Rainbo Club regular and former calendar participant. "They usually make you look good. I don't know what it is about the lighting, but it makes you look mysterious."

At Photo-Me's U.S. headquarters in Dallas, Gulley says, he'll get a phone call from a panicked customer every once in a while.

"Are there any negatives? Who has copies of these photos?" they'll ask.

"I always play with them a little bit," Gulley says. He'll let them dangle, then accuse them: "You showed your [chest], didn't you?" Then he puts the caller's mind at rest: No, there are no copies, no negatives. Photo booths use a direct positive process, imprinting the image directly to the paper -- creating a one-of-a-kind artifact.

Siberian immigrant and itinerant photographer Anatol Josepho invented the photo booth in 1925 -- "a coin-in-the-slot machine which would automatically develop the photographs, dry them and deliver them," reported The New York Times in 1927.

At the time, eight photos cost 25 cents.

Developing streamlined

Improvements on Josepho's Rube Goldberg-like developing process, most notably in 1946 by a California duo named Gupp Allen and I.D. Baker, made the developing more streamlined so the modern photo booth could be smaller.

But instant photos lost their novelty with the rise in popularity of the Polaroid camera and its instant film. Hard times for the local dime store, longtime photo booth havens and mainstream retail chains such as Kmart and Woolworths didn't help.

"The rest is kind of downhill from there, the need for photo booths really diminished," Gulley says. "When Woolworths went out of business, it hurt our business immensely."

Innovation -- especially digital printing -- further threatens Photo-Me's corner of the market. Rival company Foto Fantasy Inc., a division of Fantasy Entertainment, offers a half dozen models of photo vending machines. For $3, Fantasy's booths print out sticker sheets of photos, a single 8-by-10 color image or pictures that look like charcoal sketches. But whereas Photo-Me uses the classic chemical developing process for its photo strips, pictures taken in Fantasy's curtainless booths are more cutting edge, relying on inkjet and gel printers to produce images comparable to medium-pixel digital photos.

The 9-year-old company based in Hudson, N.H., has 124 machines in 76 Chicagoland locations, says spokeswoman Roberta Lemay. Fantasy owns booths in most of the area's high-traffic tourist destinations, from Navy Pier to Sears Tower. Niles' Golf Mill Shopping Center is a photo booth battleground. I spotted a half-dozen of Fantasy's "foto" machines, and three Photo-Me booths. A few hours of reporter surveillance revealed about equal attention to both company's products.

Gulley says Photo-Me has about 50 to 70 locations around Chicago, although he keeps a complete list of locations and exact number of booths a territorial secret. You can generally look to hipster hangouts such as Ukrainian Village's Empty Bottle, Lincoln Park's Local Option and the family-friendly Bunny Hutch Novelty Golf and Games in Lincolnwood to find Photo-Me booths.

Lemay calls Photo-Me "our only true competitor." Last year, Fantasy introduced 500 Foto Fun Strips machines, which make four vertical photos, to compete directly with Photo-Me's classic product.

"We got a lot of calls. People wanted four poses on one strip," Lemay says. "It's a twist on a classic -- the historical premise of what a historical photo booth is like. It's a great product. . . . It's helping out the bottom line immensely."

Refurbished product

Photo-Me hasn't manufactured a new photo booth in 15 to 20 years, Gulley says. All of Photo-Me's new accounts get refurbished, customized booths.

James Photopoulos, co-owner of Photo's Hot Dogs in Mt. Prospect, has had the same color Photo-Me booth in his eatery for 15 years. A lot of cab drivers come in and use his photo booth for their I.D. cards, he says.

"I don't know how they find out, but you can see people are coming just to use the photo booth," he says.

Fantasy has proposed putting a machine in Photo's and is lobbying for one in his under-construction location in Palatine.

"These digital guys are trying to take over," Photopoulos says, but he intends to stick with the vintage product, reasoning digital photos are "not true photography, if you will."

"I guess I'm an old-school guy," he says. "It's like a little darkroom inside. The others look like the digital printout from a computer, and I just find from the darkroom, they're more real, more genuine."

In an age quickly growing accustomed to low-quality images from digital cameras in cell phones, photo booth artist and historian Nakki Goranin sees a continuing place for little closets of pictorial alchemy.

"They are not flat images. They are very rich images," says Goranin, a Rogers Park native who is working on a collection of images and history of the photo booth called "Drawn Toward the Light."

She's not the only one doing a book: Babbette Hines' historical collection "Photobooth" ($19.95, Princeton Architectural Press) has been a hot seller for its publisher, and in 2002, MTV anthologized its collection from the photo booth on the "Total Request Live" set in "MTV Photobooth" (Universe Publishing, $17.95).

And photo booths aren't just in bars and arcades anymore.

Gulley says Photo-Me is now renting out units to wedding receptions, and movie directors Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino recently bought booths for their homes. Wrigleyville bar Sluggers has ordered a Photo-Me booth, and Gulley has signed on a couple of local Kmarts. It's not what it used to be, but it is growing. "They do require a lot of maintenance, but if they were placed correctly, I think there could be a lot of interest," Goranin says. "It's just something there could be a big renewal for."

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

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