Snapshots of nostalgia

Austin American-Statesman 3/4/2003
by Pamela LeBlanc

Inside old-fashioned photo booths, Austinites squeeze in as machines squeeze out warm and fuzzy images

Lizzie Todd and Leila Hijazi were on a mission -- and even though they marched right into Amy's, this wasn't about ice cream.

Oh no.

They headed straight for the cash register, ignoring the sweet smell of toasting waffle cones. Forked over a couple of ones. Cupped in their hands the quarters the cashier gave them and made for the photo booth.

In front of the yellow, turquoise and purple stall, they fumbled in their purses for mirrors and pots of lip gloss. They giggled. Then Todd pulled back the black curtain and stepped inside. And Hijazi held it tight.

Eight quarters plunked into the coin slot -- chink, chink, chink. Then a slight whir of mechanical parts, and four bright flashes. And three minutes later, payoff -- a strip of four black-and-white photos.

In a world of digital cameras and high-tech gadgets, the old-fashioned photo booth remains comfortingly lowbrow. The pictures they spit out are grainy, and they often look worse than a driver's license photo. But they're instantaneous, can't be edited, and they tell some pretty hilarious stories.

Something about going into one makes people go cross-eyed, stick out their tongues or open their mouths wide. Some people bring props: cue cards, Mr. Potato Head toys, ice cream cones. Some wear sunglasses or hats. Others kiss, pretend to pick their noses or drop their pants.

Todd, 21, and Hijazi, 23, it turns out, had something else in mind as they took turns in the booth, armed with cellophane-wrapped cigars and lollipops. They were making (ever so slightly risque) pictures to give to their boyfriends on Valentine's Day. So when the machine cranked out their photos, they snatched them up in a nanosecond, huddled and giggled conspiratorially.

Leila: "What happened? Ha ha ha ha! . . . It's good, but I think we can do better. . ."

Lizzie: "I'm laughing too hard!"

Leila: "This lollipop is turning my teeth orange. It's a good thing they're black and white."

The first automatic photography machines were introduced in 1889, but coins tended to jam in them and they needed frequent chemical changes. An improved version, the "Photomaton," which produced a strip of eight photographs, came out in 1925.

Gupp Allen and I.D. Baker, two American inventors, developed the photo booth we know today in the 1940s. A London-based company now known as Photo-Me International bought Allen's design. At their high point after World War II, about 30,000 of the booths could be found across the country.

Photo-Me, today the biggest manufacturer, supplier and operator of reconditioned, old-fashioned automatic photo booths, operates more than 27,000 booths in 110 countries. About 2,000 of them are in the United States. The company sells the booths (they start at about $5,000) or provides them on a revenue-sharing basis with the store or restaurant. One of its biggest money-makers brings in about $3,000 a month.

In Europe, photo booths are utilitarian -- people use them to make bus and subway pass IDs. There are 400 photo booths in the Paris subway system alone, said Gary Gulley, sales executive for Photo-Me USA, based in Grand Prairie. Here, they're used more for entertainment.

"Basically teenage girls are our market," Gulley said. "Part of it's having the pictures to think back and laugh at later on. Part of it's getting in there and squishing up with your boyfriend or girlfriend."

Unlock the door that hides the inner workings of the photo booth at Amy's on Guadalupe Street and you'll find 13 containers of green, gold, black and gray liquid -- the developer, toner, bleach and washes into which the machine dips each photo strip as it's processed. The strips are wet when the 50-year-old machine churns them out.

Steve Simmons, who maintains the photo booths at all area Amy's shops and rents them out for special events, says he has seen it all, from college students trying to cram in as many people as they can to celebrities like Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (when they were still a couple) mugging in another he used to have at Katz's. A father-son duo has had their picture taken in an Amy's photo booth once a year for 16 years. Simmons even met his wife -- the Amy of Amy's Ice Cream -- when he installed the first booth at one of her shops.

At Chuy's restaurant on Barton Springs Road, two giant green papier-mache jalapeos dressed as space aliens stand atop a photo booth in the bar. (This same booth, minus the jalapeos, was once in the Walgreens at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue.) An array of 1960s-era photo strips decorate the outside of the booth, which Chuy's now owns.

Chris Laflin, 39, can't resist when his daughter Kathryn, 8, begs to use the booth. They climb in, along with sister Marissa, 11, and adjust the seat height by spinning the stool.

"We just wanted a picture to remember a fun evening," Chris Laflin said. "It's quick. You get it right away. It's not the highest quality picture -- it's just one of those silly things to do."

By the time the Laflins finish, Shannon, 33, and Keith Lowry, 32, are waiting their turn with 2-year-old son Minor in tow. Photo booth veterans (they recorded their first kiss in a photo booth in Chicago nine years ago), the Lowrys climb into the booth, place a container of leftover Mexican food on the floor and position themselves on the stool.

"We do it every time we come here as a memento," Keith said. "I shot about 5,000 digital snapshots in the last year. It's a hassle to print them out. These things you can't edit -- out of every four, you get one that someone's blinking."

Part of the photos' appeal is their blurry, authentic feel, Shannon said. "And the size, I think, is something special."

Austin photo booths have been the site of all kinds of excitement through the years, from marriage proposals to scavenger hunts and UT students working on class projects.

"I'm sure you could tell soap operas out of that photo booth," said Elena Trombetta, a shift boss at Amy's. She pulls out a worn blue photo album crammed with strips of photos, some colorized with yellow and blue highlighters. Once, she says, a local band came in to take pictures to use on the cover of their compact disc.

Right now, Leila Kempner, 33, is learning her way around the Amy's photo booth. She's determined to make photo strips of herself with son Owen McWilliams, to give to the 1-year-old's grandparents.

"That was my first one," she says, showing off a picture of her fumbling in her purse. "I didn't know what was going on. I wasn't sure how quickly it would work."

That's part of a photo booth's charm. "(New) digital photo booths have a countdown so you know when to smile," said Gulley, with Photo-Me. "These things, it's just kind of a random flash. It catches you almost off guard, even though you're sitting there waiting on it."

And perhaps that's why the old-fashioned booths retain their popularity. Photo-Me has introduced color photo booths, digital booths and booths that allow you to pose and re-pose before printing your picture.

But they don't come with that same sense of nostalgia or warmth that the classic booths have. And that's what we're really trying to capture in those funny little strips of pictures, isn't it?

Contributed by Brian