Once everywhere, coin-operated photo booths are harder to find

St. Paul Pioneer Press 7/30/2002
by Richard Chin

Go ahead. Pull the curtain. Rotate the stool to the right height. Put in your money. Wait for the light to start flashing, then stick your fingers in the corners of your mouth, poke out your tongue, cross your eyes. Pucker up if there's someone else in there with you. Kiss.

Then, wait impatiently for a couple of minutes for the little strip of images to drop out of the slot, still damp from the developer.

That's you, baby, immortalized in four different poses, black-and-white mug shots, miniature self-portraits, waiting to be pasted into a scrapbook, mailed to a distant lover, tucked into the corner of a dresser mirror or slipped into a wallet.

If you don't know what we're talking about, then you've never been in a photo booth, or it's been so long that you don't remember.

We can't blame you. Invented in this country in the early part of the last century, the old-tech, coin-operated, nondigital, real film, develop-while-you-wait photo booth is no longer being manufactured. Despite decades of service as a recorder of teenage dates, best friends and hopeful globe-trotters in need of a passport photo, these somewhat kitschy devices have become an increasingly rare sight on the American landscape.

Which makes Todd Erickson a sort of curator of a museum of coin-operated autophoto technology.

Besides video games and pinball machines, Erickson, who owns the Penny Arcade at the Minnesota State Fair, also has a collection of about 40 photo booths that he's bought up over the years.

Erickson, who has been in the coin-operated entertainment business for nearly 30 years, said he's spent hundreds of hours restoring the miniature mechanized photo studio and darkrooms. It's not just a labor of love, however.

In recent years, Erickson has found there's still life in the old machine. Maybe it's pure nostalgia. Maybe it's the prominent role that photo booths played in last year's hit French movie "Amelie." Maybe it's the fact that photo booths have been mentioned or depicted recently in such publications as In Style and Oprah.

But Erickson said people have been lining up to use them at the State Fair, and in the last couple of years, he's built a growing business renting them out for special events like weddings, corporate parties, reunions, proms and bar mitzvahs.

"That was one of the highlights, everyone said, at the wedding," said Perri Levitus, who rented one of Erickson's machines for about $1,000 for her daughter's wedding in June. She said guests shot photos of themselves and then pasted them into an album at the reception at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. "It was really cute and really fun."

"People like these little pictures," said Erickson, who expects to do about 40 to 50 photo booth rentals this year. "You can't get these little pictures anywhere else."

Once, however, you could get a photo-booth picture all over.

The Photomaton, the first self-operated photo booth, was invented in 1925 by Anatol Josepho. An immigrant from Siberia, he set up his first machine at Broadway and 51st Street in New York City. A couple years later, Josepho sold the rights to his invention to a group of businessmen for $1 million, and the devices were soon distributed across the country.

They became a fixture at stores like Woolworths and Kresge. Norm Pink, former president of the Minneapolis-based Midwest Automatic Photo company, said his firm operated dozens of machines in Upper Midwest dime stores in the 1960s in such towns as Fargo, N.D., Kalamazoo, Mich., and Rapid City, S.D., and later, in Circus Pizza restaurants.

"It was my original love in the coin-machine business," Pink said.

Back then, four photos cost a quarter, and the machines cranked out thousands of pictures.

"The quality of the pictures was excellent," Pink said. "A photo machine could stay in a Woolworths store for years, literally 10 years."

The machines started disappearing as dime stores went out of business. Floor space became too valuable for photo booths in stores like Wal-Mart or Target, Pink said.

He also said the old-fashioned look of the machines didn't fit with the unified decor of the stores, and retailers became less eager to attract kids who wanted to hang around.

The booths also were hurt when government agencies started using their own photo equipment to take identity pictures and by the availability of cheap, disposable cameras.

And compared with other coin-operated amusement devices, the photo booths were expensive to buy and took a lot of work to maintain.

In 1955, the machines, which were made in Los Angeles, cost about $2,500 new, Pink said. A prime, restored machine with the original graphics is a collectable worth up to $17,000 now, Erickson said.

"These things are a work of art," Erickson said.

To keep the electromechanical gadgets running, Erickson has had to substitute solenoids from washing machines and capacitors from X-ray machines. He's updated some parts by coating them with Teflon, substituting stainless steel for some fasteners and using synthetic oil to lubricate the transmission.

Newer digital photo booths are available that require less maintenance and produce big color pictures or a series of photo stickers.

"But that's not what people want," Erickson said. "People want black and white. They want the little wallet-sized pictures. They last forever."

The proof can be found in Erickson's workshop, decorated with photo-booth photos of arcade workers dating back to the 1950s.

Photo booths are still hard at work in many European countries, where they are used to produce photos for identification on train passes, for example.

"Every subway station in London has got one," said French photo-booth strip collector Christophe Mallet.

But the fans of the devices like photo booths not because they are useful but because they have a way of capturing a time and place unlike any other recording device.

Alone behind the curtain, with just a machine behind the camera, you're free to pose or flash a body part or make a goofy face or neck without embarrassment. The result can be a strangely intimate self-portrait. Perhaps that's why artists like Andy Warhol have incorporated photo-booth self-portraits in their works.

"It's something you do when you've got your first boyfriend or girlfriend," Mallet said. "You cut the pictures in half. Two for you, two for me."

"Because they're in this enclosed space, people reveal themselves in different ways," said New York City photo booth strip collector Wade Tinney. He said he also likes the way the photo booth collects four moments separated by a few seconds.

"It's kind of stretching out the moment," he said. "It's inviting the viewer to fill in the gaps."

Contributed by Brian