The once ubiquitous photobooth, nearing extinction but still holding on

Associated Press 7/5/2001
by Lukas I. Alpert

With a quick flip of her hair, and a check in a small mirror to make sure her lipstick wasn't smudged, Monique Ramos was ready to have her picture taken.

She climbed into the photobooth, inserted a $3 token, and turned to show her profile ... then stared straight ahead, pushed her face up to the camera, and, for the last frame, drew her mouth into a smirk.

Two minutes later a 7 3/4-inch black-and-white strip popped out of the side of the booth - one of the last left in New York City, or anywhere for that matter.

The once-ubiquitous photobooth that spits out strips of black-and-white photos has almost faded away, dwindling from a post-World War II high of approximately 30,000 to somewhere around 2,000 nationwide.

Yet the photobooth is stubbornly hanging in there, with one manufacturer still producing them and a handful of distributors still finding ways to repair them. In bars, amusement parks and malls, the last of these machines are still popular.

"There are operators - some of these old-timers - if they can find them and get them operating, they love to put them out there because the booths still make money," said Nick Montano, an editor at the trade publication, Vending Times.

"They've crossed over to kitsch at this point," said Wade Tinney, an Internet game developer who also runs, a site devoted to the art of the photobooth. "And that will grow as they become rarer and harder to find."

It was in 1925 that Anatol Josepho, an immigrant from Siberia, patented the first self-operating photobooth, the "Photomaton," which produced a strip of eight photographs in eight minutes.

When he opened a studio on 51st Street and Broadway in New York, the machine took off. Two years later he sold the rights to his design, for the then-astronomical sum of $1 million, to a group of businessmen looking to establish the machines in Coney Island, Atlantic City, N.J., and other leisure spots.

The idea worked because the technology was fairly simple: inside the machine was a large, round vat, cut into four subsections, each containing a different developing solution. A mechanical arm dipped the strip into a solution, the vat rotated and the strip was dipped again.

Later, in the 1960s, artist Andy Warhol took the machine's use to another level. He would insist that people who came to visit him at his "Factory" have their picture taken at a machine located near Times Square, and he'd include the strips in his various art projects.

While the reason people used the machines varied - from passport photos, to capturing the memory of a fun day - the design remained more or less unchanged until recently, when digital technology became common.

"They were all mechanical, no computers. It's just paper, water, fixer and developer - all moving parts," says Kenny Goldberg of Emerson Amusements, a vending machine distributor in Queens. Goldberg says he owns about a dozen of the old-fashioned types.

"Yeah, upkeep is a real problem. Parts are unavailable. The paper is hard to find - but if people want them, we still supply 'em," Goldberg says.

Photo-Me International still builds the old-fashioned, mechanical-style machines - though, in one concession to progress, the booths produce color photos.

"We have about 27,000 machines out there worldwide, and about 1,500 of them are in the United States. It's a very good business," said Alberto Caroselli, president of the American division of Photo-Me.

Based in Surrey, England, Photo-Me also makes digitally based versions of the booths, but Caroselli said the mechanical machines make up nearly 80 percent of the company's American market.

Another big difference, Caroselli said: "The U.S. market is a fun market. In Europe, it is a more utilitarian one."

For example, in central London, photobooths can still be found in many tube stations because commuters need to affix a photo to their weekly and monthly train passes.

But in the United States, the machines began to disappear from wide circulation in the 1970s as the venues where they were commonly found - amusement parks, arcades and five-and-dime stores - changed their focus or closed entirely.

"Think about where these things were located," said David Jones, 52, musing on the subject at Lakeside Lounge, an East Village bar that is home to one of the few machines left in New York City.

"People don't go to Coney Island and Asbury Park for amusement anymore; they stay at home or go elsewhere," he said.

And with the advent of high-quality and inexpensive cameras, the photobooth was dealt another blow.

But the new cameras are not the same, Jones lamented.

"These machines, they really allow you to perform," he said of the older machines. "They allow you to make a fool of yourself."

Contributed by Brian