The incredible disappearing photobooth

Chicago Sun-Times 7/31/2001
by Jae-Ha Kim

These are the good ol' days for the once ubiquitous memory maker. Snap a memento while you can.

When Lilia Chacon and her good buddy Katie Carrillo ran into that rarity known as a photobooth, they knew what had to be done. "We put our $ 3 into the machine, went in and mugged it up," says Chacon, a reporter for Fox News Chicago. "This was about 10 years ago when we were both single. It's a carefree, fun reminder of who we were at that stage of our lives. We split the photo strip in half so we each have two shots."

Sure, shot-by-shot, $ 3 for a strip of four photos is more expensive than taking pictures with a 35mm or digital camera. But the elements of fun and instant nostalgia are irreplaceable.

"You just react differently when you're in a photo booth," Chacon says. "The picture quality is less important than how you react. There are a lot of memories in these photos. I have some strips with ex-boyfriends: Some of them I remember fondly, and others I don't want to remember at all. They all look so innocent in the photos, like they're incapable of breaking your heart."

Once as ubiquitous as Starbucks is now, photobooths are an endangered species. Invented in 1925 by Siberian immigrant Anatol Josepho, the booths had a post-World War II high of about 30,000 nationwide. Their use went from taking practical passport photos to capturing memories of a particularly fun day. Today, there are just 2,000 booths in the United States. About 1,500 of these are courtesy of Photo-Me, which operates 28,000 photobooth machines worldwide.

"In Europe, the photobooth business is very utilitarian," says Alberto Caroselli, president of the company's American division. "They use them for ID cards, bus passes, passports and job applications. In the United States, it's more of a fun business. Here, we place them in shopping centers, cinemas and amusement parks. It's a part of Americana."

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 near Times Square, and he'd include the strips in his various art projects.

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

Lakeview illustrator Andrew Skwish enjoys the oddball aspect of photobooths: "I like the immediate thrill of goofy pictures," says Skwish, 40. "There is a history there. You can climb in alone or with a bunch of folks. There is no photographer to please--kind of that '50s version [of the future], sitting in that seat and pulling the curtain. The curtain makes it feel like there is something mysterious going on like 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

Skwish gives away most of his shots. But his gems are displayed in that ultimate frame: his refrigerator.

"I like sharing them with friends," West Loop resident Jon Reens, 28, says of his photobooth creations. "It's a spontaneous thing to do because you don't have to wait until a roll of film is shot, then developed at the drugstore. Who doesn't like taking goofy pictures?"

Ready to strike a pose?

Visit the following photobooths around the metro area.

* City of Chicago Gun Registration, 50 W. Washington (312-744-8100)

* Ed Debevics, 640 N. Wells (312-664-1707)

* Empty Bottle,1035 N. Western (773-276-3600)

* Evergreen Plaza, 9500 S. Western, Evergreen Park (708-422-5454)

* Golf Mill Mall, Golf Rd. and Milwaukee, Niles (847-699-9440)

* Holiday Club, 1471 N. Milwaukee (773-486-0686)

* Lincoln Mall, 208 Lincoln Mall Drive, Matteson (708) 747-5600

* Melvin B's,1114 N. State (312-751-9897)

* Rainbow Club,1150 N. Damen (773-489-5999)

* Santa's Village, Routes 25 and 72, E. Dundee (847-426-6751)

* Six Flags Great America, 542 N. Route 21, Gurnee (847-249-1776)

* Metro Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark (773-549-3604)

Contributed by Brian